WILLIAMSTOWN -- On Jan. 30, the environmental consulting firm O’Reilly, Talbot and Okun submitted to the Affordable Housing Committee a proposal to begin environmental remediation at the site of the Old Town Garage at 59 Water Street.
The 1.27-acre site has been a focus of the town’s efforts to develop additional affordable housing following Tropical Storm Irene’s devastated of The Spruces Mobile Home Park on Route 2, which displaced more than 250 of its residents.
Options for development are also being explored for the site of the former Photech Mill on Cole Avenue, and for the Lowry and Burbank properties (both currently in conservation) on Stratton Road.
The proposal is a follow-up to an assessment completed by the firm in July 2012, which was paid for by Community Preservation Act funds and by The Massachusetts Housing Partnership. The assessment identified two areas of the Water Street site that were contaminated by oil left over by underground fuel tanks that were removed in the 1990s.
The recent assessment was paid for by Community Preservation Act funds.
According to the proposal, removing the contaminated soil, and then testing the site again to ensure its suitability for housing will take six weeks and cost approximately $15,000.
Questions about the levels of contamination at both the Water Street and Cole Avenue sites had originally led planners to shift their attention away from the center of town, to the Lowry and Burbank properties, both of which are mostly undeveloped farmland and greenspace.
Successful remediation of the Water Street site will help clear the way for talks with potential housing developers.
Leigh Short is an expert in hazardous waste cleanup and site remediation who joined the AHC last fall, in order to offer his more than 30 years of experience in his field to the affordable housing efforts. He also is currently working with the United States Army on chemical weapons destruction at sites throughout the country.
"Water Street is one of the least contaminated sites I’ve worked on in my career," he said. "That’s not saying a whole bunch," he admits. "But petroleum hydrocarbon contamination is probably one of the easiest things to deal with. Unless it’s very heavy oil, it’s typically biodegradable. It’s easy to dig up, it’s easy to dispose of."
The contaminated soil at the Water Street site will likely be disposed of at an in-state facility designed for that purpose, he said.
Remediating the Water Street site appears to be a straightforward task. The site has been home to an ice skating rink, two blacksmith shops, residential structures, the Williamstown Jail, the Town Garage and other buildings used by contractors and carpenters.
Throughout its history, seven fuel tanks have been buried and unearthed at the site, leaving behind toxic but potentially manageable amounts of petroleum residues.
With more varied and complicated past uses, the former site of the Photech Mill present greater challenges in terms of hazardous waste mitigation.
In 1997, the EPA allocated $450,000 of Superfund money to clean up the 4.9-acre site, which had served a variety of industrial purposes since 1865. Photech, which abandoned its operations in 1989, was the last company to occupy the site.
The EPA removed 188 tons of contaminated material, 40,000 gallons of wastewater and 40 cubic yards of asbestos from the site, and a year later $750,000 of additional state money, which was supposed to pay for the building’s demolition, went towards cleaning up newly discovered waste at the site.
The main factory building was finally demolished in 2005, leaving only a secondary, four-story, brick building, which was built in 1941.
Although posing no significant danger to the surrounding neighborhoods, the site remains contaminated enough to prevent the development of single-family homes, according to an assessment completed by the civil and environmental engineering firm Tigh and Bond in August 2012.
That assessment - paid for by a grant from MassDevelopment - revealed asbestos-containing materials in the southern portion of the site, and concentrations of Cadmium and silver in the soil that were above the state’s standard for safety.
The report stated that "extensive soil remediation" would be required in order for unrestricted development at the site to be approved.
Removing the contaminated soil is possible, Short said, but there is much more of it to remove than at Water Street, and more complicated underground structures would also potentially have to be removed. "You can do it, but you’d have to find a place that will accept that particular type of waste," he said.
One alternative to excavating the site would be to add a layer of impermeable concrete-like material on top of the existing soil, a technique called capping, which Short believes could be a long-term solution.
He explained that rigorous testing beforehand can determine whether runoff will continue extracting contaminants from the surface, and ensure that the contamination will remain sequestered long into the future.
Of all the possibilities being explored for affordable housing, Short said, the Photech site will likely be the most expensive, especially if its remaining structure needs to be demolished and taken away.
Tighe and Bond are currently conducting another assessment- funded by MassDevelopment - to analyze options for remediation at Cole Avenue and to determine whether demolishing the existing structure will be necessary.
"What work on these two sites is accomplishing for us is getting us closer to the point where we can talk about building on them," said Catharine Yamamoto, chairwoman of the Affordable Housing Committee.
"Until these assessments are done, no developer can talk about building on the sites."
The AHC will respond to the Jan. 30 proposal at its next meeting, on Feb. 12.
Also at that time, the committee will hear the key findings of a detailed housing needs assessment conducted by John Ryan of Development Cycles in Amherst.
The nearly two-month long study, paid for by Community Preservation Act funds, will provide further direction for the affordable housing efforts and allow the AHC to begin thinking about specific housing designs.