Navy Works to Deter Abandoned Building Access at Superfund Site

December 12, 2022

As protracted environmental cleanup continues, the U.S. Navy – owner of contaminated acreage on the north side of Hartwell Road – is taking steps to better secure abandoned buildings from unauthorized access.

Steve Passafaro, a Navy engineering consultant from a New Jersey firm, told the Restoration Advisory Board at a meeting last week that since Thanksgiving, first-floor doors in buildings at the former Naval Weapons Industrial Research Plant have been welded and windows securely boarded.

He added, “We upgraded the monitoring service and because the camera system has a speaker, we have audible warnings. The voice message broadcast recognizes trespassing and advises about a follow-up call to police.”

The enhanced steps were among the few new items emanating from the annual meeting, which addressed a tract designated a hazardous waste area by the federal law known as the Superfund.

The Restoration Advisory Board is defined by the Department of Defense as “a stakeholder group that meets to discuss environmental restoration at a specific property” owned by the DoD, which oversees the cleanup process.

Trespassing and vandalism are not new problems at the compound, which has been inactive for more than 20 years since it was a hub of activity by Raytheon Systems Division. But in recent weeks, intruders have been using power tools to gain access through boarded windows, said Paul Corwell of Orbis Inc., a DoD contractor from South Carolina. The latest effort is at a “higher level,” including more signage, Corwell said. 

Bedford resident Jennifer Boles, who chaired a recent town committee considering alternative uses for the parcel, asked if the youths who break into the buildings could have been exposed to toxic vapors from the underground contaminants. Eric Ross, project manager, acknowledged the possibility, adding that it probably would take prolonged exposure to have a deleterious impact. Regardless, he said, steps have been taken to better secure the property.

Ross presided at the board session in Town Center, emphasizing the focus on community input. He noted that a site management plan is updated every year, with a formal review on a five-year cycle. The next one is due in September 2024.

There are two locations on the property that remain the focus of cleanup efforts, with monitoring of underground plumes continuing through the use of test wells. Additional monitoring wells were installed over the past two years; there are now 28. This winter the results will show if the groundwater contamination has changed.

The primary site “has undergone a lot of remedial activity,” Ross said, “through groundwater extraction and treatment to contain the plume.

“We’re looking to expand our extraction system, to improve the capture, and pull back any eastward expansion of the plumes,” Ross said. “We are trying to ensure we are capturing everything.”

He noted that agencies are evaluating a “time-critical removal action” if testing finds an accelerated cleanup on one of the plumes is warranted. He didn’t specify what would spark such a response.

One approach is “in situ processes to stimulate the environment,” said Michael Daly of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Natural conditions in the ground” will help mitigate some of the contaminants, Ross said. 

“With some of these contaminants you don’t have a clear timeline.” One site was targeted for completion in 2018; after monitoring results, another 10 years were added.

Land-use controls have been applied to the active sites, restricting development and groundwater use.

Ross said the most recent five-year review called for further investigation of remedies, as well as verification of emerging contaminants. 

“We operate a groundwater tracking system and long-term monitoring for the Navy,” said Passafaro. He noted that since 1997, some 320,000 gallons per month have been extracted. During that time, the cleanup effort removed 175 pounds of volatile organic compounds.

The extracted groundwater flows through a series of carbon vessels and ultraviolet light reactors and is then discharged to the ground, Ross said. In answer to a question from Boles, Robert Davis, another environmental consultant, said the water discharged does not flow to Elm Brook.

Heidi Porter, Bedford’s Director of Health and Human Services, asked if PFAS was among the emerging chemicals being treated. 

Ross said PFAS have not been detected, but if they are, “we do have technology on the groundwater treatment plant right now that could treat it up to a certain concentration.” PFAS emanating from the use of firefighting foam has been detected at an Air Force cleanup site across Hartwell Road at Hanscom Field.

When asked by Boles how many structures outside the weapons plant boundary lie within the 100-foot buffering zone for vapor intrusion, Passafaro said a “handful.”

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