No agreement in sight for Raymark cleanup

In the 25 years since Raymark, formerly and aptly named Raybestos, was forced to close its brake pad manufacturing facility, Stratford residents have been living with the fallout of an ongoing environmental and governmental debate about how to more permanently mitigate the multiple contaminated sites that remain in town.

What may seem surprising to outsiders or new residents observing this process is an unchanging, and unsettling, reality for both Stratford officials and residents. That is, there is no agreement on a suitable remedy for sites that are still not properly sealed, or where contamination has not been, or cannot be, completely removed.

As a result of this stalemate, $21 million set aside for additional Stratford cleanup from the sale of the Raymark property and related settlements may not be used on such cleanup until a compromise is reached and an official record of decision (ROD) is submitted for approval by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

If the dedicated funds are ever used, Stratford would then be eligible for additional money through the federal government.

EPA and the mayor
Because Raymark falls under federal Superfund designation, many of The Star’s sources are quick to defer to the Environmental Protection Agency before discussing the status of this process, or offer a definitive answer about how to end the persisting gridlock.

EPA representatives like Jim Murphy, who have been overseeing Stratford’s Superfund contamination for the last 17 years, say that finding a cost-effective way to either remove or consolidate Raymark waste remains the top priority. The central problem, moving forward, they say, is that different sites, or operable units (OUs), require different methods of remediation. Murphy says he believes new action can and should be taken soon, stating,
“It’s really time to do it. We hope to get back to the table this year. We need to work with the mayor’s office to come up with a plan.”

He further pointed out that as time passes, the town is missing out on opportunities to acquire more funding like that available four years ago through the federal American Recovery Act, which could have provided tens of millions of dollars for further Superfund cleanup.

The Raybestos legacy
According to the EPA, and the public health assessment from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, Raybestos used asbestos to line its brake pads during manufacturing, in addition to lead, copper and PCBs, which are also named among its most toxic byproducts. What was problematic enough for residents and workers around the primary manufacturing sites became exponentially worse when the company began offering its contaminated fill to areas bordering wetlands, riverways, schools, and 46 residential properties in Stratford.

The town received $200 million in federal money in the mid 90s to cap the main source of contamination and remediate residential properties, as well as to complete studies for remaining waste sites.

For decades, the Raybestos manufacturing plant was an integral part of the Stratford community, even sponsoring local baseball teams and hosting softball games on its Raybestos Ball Field bordering Frog Pond Lane, which would end up with the highest level of contamination in town to date. The site also caused controversy among residents when an EPA plan for consolidation was proposed, using the ball field as the central location to store the remaining contamination in town.

As of 2014, the only site that is considered officially remediated is Operable Unit 1, also known as the Crossings Shopping Center off East Main Street, which capped the underground plume and uses a series of ventilation systems around the property in an attempt to ensure volatile organic compounds do not pose a health risk in the area. The system is not perfect, however, with the EPA reporting that underground water leaching of VOCs is still occurring, and plans for a ground water remediation system remain elusive after all these years.

Curran clarified that feasibility studies had been conducted with both DEEP and the EPA and that ideas such as constructing a cutoff wall to contain the leaching had been proposed. But Curran also noted that the underground topography of the area made it difficult to permanently keep contamination from reaching the Housatonic River. The consolation, if there is one, may be that the VOCs evaporate quickly in open water, said Curran, explaining that the chemicals do not stay concentrated in the water and therefore do not pose a direct threat to the health of humans or animals in the area. He added, “Metals can be highly toxic to aquatic life, but we do not see metals leaching.”

The conflict over consolidation
In 2000, the Raymark Advisory Council (RAC) was formed with the intention of bringing local and federal officials together with Stratford residents to openly discuss possible solutions for contaminated sites. Before discussions stalled in 2007, local environmental groups were active in bringing proposals to the table, and vocal in their opposition to the Raybestos Ball Field consolidation plan, which residents said would have stored contamination above ground, risking increased airborne toxin exposure while a permanent solution was finalized.

Alternative plans for complete removal were also considered, including shipping the contamination out of Stratford and into Superfund designated landfill facilities. But officials say that the plan was entirely impossible from a funding perspective and also they worried that shipping the contamination strained landfills in other states that required extra capacity for highly toxic waste from sites across the country.

Government favors it
When asked about the changing plans for remediation over the years, both Jim Murphy and Ron Curran, environmental analyst in the Remediation Division, Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse for Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), say that the EPA and CT DEEP have continued to advocate consolidation in some form. Curran said he does not want to create more contamination, but rather consolidate in a place that is already polluted and that has a “capacity that exceeds what we would need to store the material.”

He still believes that capping at the Raybestos Ball Field is the most logical solution to this problem. But some residents do not agree.

Locals oppose it
Stratford resident Charles Perez says he helped form Stratford Action For the Environment (SAFE) “after attending meetings with the EPA and hearing their plans to dig up many cubic yards of Raymark contamination and dump it on the former Contract Plating company property in our backyard, and in various locations all the way to the old Raybestos Ball Field on Frog Pond Lane.”
Perez and other residents, like SAFE Vice President Ron Mazzey, have been active participants in RAC and say they want to find a solution that does not involve digging up contamination and risking further asbestos exposure for residents.

Perez added that he does not believe the current consolidation plan is a viable solution. “I still feel that capping in one place is like leaving a time capsule of hazardous material that will one day be unearthed by generations in the future,” he said.

In response to these concerns, both the EPA and DEEP contend that the digging of contamination can be done under controlled conditions, transporting it to the ball field, and securing it underground where the majority of hazardous material already exists. Curran says that this plan would not temporarily store any of the contamination above ground, which was a source of major conflict when it was first proposed more than a decade ago. He says the waste would be buried at least four feet below the surface and capped in place so the property could be reused by the town.

Curran added that OUs have to be evaluated on a site-by-site basis, and that capping and remediating on site without removal is not an option for certain areas that pose flooding risks, and would require the demolition of buildings to complete.

Call for open discussion
Murphy acknowledged that mistakes by the EPA had been made early on with the handling of materials at a few sites around town, which led to the current distrust of the cleanup process. He hopes that an open discussion that clearly defines how this consolidation could work, and how it differs from previous plans, would help relieve some of the fears among residents.

DeLauro and Harkins
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut’s 3rd District including Stratford, hopes to find a compromise solution to this ongoing problem.
In a statement to The Stratford Star, Ms. DeLauro said: “While some progress has been made with regard to the Raymark Superfund site, work remains to be done. After the community raised concerns about the EPA’s initial plan, I wanted to ensure they had a voice in the remediation plan’s development. Conversations and meetings to build a consensus around such a plan are ongoing.”

Mayor John Harkins also believes a compromise can be reached. His office told The Star: “The Mayor remains engaged with the EPA, CT DEEP and Stratford residents in an effort to reach a solution that all parties can be comfortable with. It is a decades-old challenge, but as Mayor Harkins has shown … he is capable of making progress on tough issues.”

For his part, Curran says he recognizes that maintaining these sites without a long-term plan is unsustainable and that some of these properties need better public protections, adding that he is often met with resistance from local business owners who do not want to call attention to the contamination and worry their property values will suffer.

The sign is posted at Ferry Creek, near Broad Street and Housatonic Avenue, alerting the public to health hazards in the contaminated site.  Lina Rainone photo.

The sign is posted at Ferry Creek, near Broad Street and Housatonic Avenue, alerting the public to health hazards in the contaminated site. Lina Rainone photo.

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