Water treatment plant's future in limbo after fire
Air Force, environmental officials to meet about replacing plant vital to cleanup.

MASHPEE - Air Force officials will meet with environmental regulators next week to discuss replacing a water treatment facility critical to the Superfund cleanup at the Massachusetts Military Reservation.

Since 1999, the treatment plant has cleaned 1 billion gallons of water contaminated by ethylene dibromide (EDB) from Fuel Spill 1 on the base's southeastern border. The facility was gutted by fire Sunday night.

The blaze triggered an automatic shutdown of the treatment plant, according to Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence spokesman Douglas Karson. It is not known when environmental cleanup efforts will resume at the site.

Local activists are worried that with the plant off-line the plume of EDB, an aviation fuel component, flowing in the aquifer will continue to travel farther into Mashpee. The EDB, which can cause liver and kidney damage, had previously reached town-owned cranberry bogs and now threatens nearby Johns Pond and the Quashnet River.

Military officials are still trying to determine how much of the $1 million facility can be salvaged.

Next week they will meet with officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to discuss the next step in getting the plant back online.

Jacobs Engineering, the company orchestrating the massive base cleanup project for the Air Force, will analyze a computerized model of the plume to determine if and how it will be affected by the plant shutdown.

"You can calculate where it's going to flow to, how fast it's going to be and what the contamination concentration will be," Karson said.

However, Karson said he doesn't expect a high risk of increased contamination.

The latest samples of 13 surface water tests in nearby bogs yielded results of 0.168 parts per billion of EDB. The federal safety standard is .02 parts per billion.

Karson said a temporary cleanup system can be in place within a few weeks, depending on whether tests show elevated levels of contamination. Karson also said Air Force officials wanted to meet with environmentalists before making any decisions.

Fuel Spill 1
Yesterday, engineers spent the day securing the site by erecting a fence around the plant. With rain in the forecast today, engineers also laid down hay bails and silt fencing to prevent contamination from flowing into the nearby river system.

The Mashpee treatment plant is part of a billion-dollar cleanup of soil and groundwater after years of military training, operations and disposal led to contamination of the Upper Cape's drinking-water supply.

The Fuel Spill 1 plant was completed in April 1999 and was designed to remove EDB from the aquifer, the region's major source of drinking water. The EDB plume was first detected during tests in 1997.

Both the Air Force and Army National Guard are conducting several extensive cleanup projects both on the 22,000-acre military reservation and in neighboring communities.

As part of an agreement to clean Fuel Spill 1, the Air Force has agreed to compensate Mashpee for contaminated town-owned cranberry bogs for the next seven seasons.

Joel Feigenbaum, a Sandwich resident who sits on a cleanup advisory panel, said yesterday that even though the fire may prove to be accidental, such mistakes cannot be tolerated and only point to how poorly managed the cleanup process has been.

"Maybe this is a series of bad coincidences but every aspect of the FS-1 problem since 1990 has been shrouded in disasters," he said, adding that he believes such problems ought to be considered when state officials decide whether to extend the Guard's base lease.

Cleanup problems
Lease issues aside, Feigenbaumsaid, concerned citizens have to understand that the fire is only the latest problem on a long list of cleanup problems.

Military officials at first denied there was any pollution emanating from Fuel Spill 1, Feigenbaum said. Then, after acknowledging that EDB was emanating from the base, the military argued that it didn't extend far enough beyond the base's border to justify any further steps.

"Then Richard Hugus and I studied this more carefully and found that ethylene dibromide had moved much faster than the other petroleum components," Feigenbaum said.

EDB is the most dangerous of the cancer-causing contaminants emanating from the base, he added.

"We said, 'you didn't look far enough.' And sure enough they looked downstream and they found loads of EDB."

Even after the extent of the pollution was acknowledged, he said, instead of first tackling the public health problem the pollution posed, base officials sought relief for cranberry bog operators.

"They move from one temporary fix to another and it all stems from a lack of clear motivation," Feigenbaum said. "When you're doing things without a clear heart and mind, you are going to end up making bad mistakes."

That the fire Sunday is a case unintended consequences doesn't wash with Feigenbaum.

"It's like when the power goes out at the hospital. Nobody says, 'Oh, too bad we made a mistake. We have to let the patients die.' No. They have a backup system that cranks in right way," he said.

Fire investigation
What Feigenbaum considers to be of greatest immediate concern is that "the groundwater doesn't stop flowing and the pollution flows with it. The plume will now continue past the extraction wells. How do they plan to retrieve that polluted water?"

Karson said the Fuel Spill 1 treatment plant was one of the few facilities that had a wooden structure around it, which he said was requested by the Mashpee Conservation Commission.

The gutted facility included two 20,000-pound canisters of granular-activated carbon that was used to extract EDB from the water after it was pumped from one deep well and several shallow wells. The water is then injected back into the ground. Karson said it is possible the carbon canisters will be salvaged.

Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze.

"We are continuing our investigation, working with the state police, the Mass. Military Reservation fire department, Jacobs Engineering, NStar and the Mashpee wire inspector," Mashpee Fire Chief George Baker said yesterday.

"The area of origin appears to be in the area of the high-voltage electrical controller," he said.

"Right now we are getting expert technical assistance on the electrical engineering issues," Baker said.

(Published: October 16, 2002)

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