Town arranged for past Bliss Corner dumping with New Bedford, documents show

Oct 18, 2021

Dartmouth officials willingly approved the dumping of hazardous materials in Bliss Corner during the 1950s, according to archived Board of Health minutes.

Throughout the decade, the documents show the board regularly allowed the City of New Bedford to have trucks “dump tin cans and ashes” in various properties prior to the neighborhood’s residential development.

At one point Manuel Sylvia, who resided at 26 Donald St., said “the dumping is beyond control.”

He presented a petition to the Board of Health on Aug. 30, 1954 to revoke all dumping permits on his street.

Archives also show requests from residents that their Bliss Corner lots be filled.

“A letter was written to [the] New Bedford Street Department stating no dumping will be allowed in the Town of Dartmouth unless permission is first obtained from the office,” minutes from a past meeting read.

The date on the minutes was listed as Feb. 4, but the specific year was not stated. A page related to the minutes referenced the budget for 1951.

The archived minutes were submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection as part of its investigation into the historic dumping.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified dangerously high levels of lead and polychlorinated biphenyls — also known as PCBs — at five properties in the neighborhood.

The investigation began after a construction company unearthed materials containing PCBs at 85 McCabe St. in 2018.

Town Administrator Shawn MacInnes said the town has retained counsel and consultants and is “in the process of investigating and better understanding activities which were apparently conducted many years ago in the ‘40s and ‘50s through the ‘60s.”

The City of New Bedford, through Boston-based lawyer C. Dylan Sanders, wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “the City is not in a position to assume responsibility for performing response actions for such a significant area of another municipality.”

“The City is aware of a few vague and inclusive references in a handful of newspaper records to historic dumping that may have occurred in the Bliss Corner neighborhood, and the City is aware of records from the Town of Dartmouth suggesting that dumping in and filling of various properties in Bliss Corner may have occurred, but these references are rarely specific as to which property may be at issue,” the letter read.

Liability over the historic dumping has been a subject of dispute between Dartmouth officials and federal and state environmental agencies.

This past April, MassDEP issued “Notice of Responsibility” letters to Dartmouth and New Bedford municipal governments, writing that the agency “has reason to believe” that the Town of Dartmouth “arranged for and/or otherwise caused the historic disposal of waste and fill material” at various Bliss Corner properties in the 1950s.

Town officials refuted the allegations via their attorney.

In their response to the EPA, Quincy-based attorney Roy P. Giarrusso argued the agency “provides absolutely no factual or legal basis for suggesting that the Town somehow arranged for, or transported waste to, the five unspecified parcels.” 

The documents do not specify whether they are the five locations which the EPA plans to clean up through “removal action,” as the agency did not disclose the location of the properties. 

But the documents show that early as the Feb. 4 meeting, the Board of Health granted permission to two residents named Russell and Joseph “to have their lot filled in with tin cans and ashes by the City of New Bedford.”

The last names of Russell and Joseph were illegible in the handwritten records.

That same month, the city was also granted permission to dump at 94 McCabe St., 26. Donald St., and the Stackhouse grounds.

In April 1957, then-Stackhouse Club President Frank Rapoza requested the Board of Health allow a large no dumping sign to be posted on the property after residents were disposing of waste instead of the city, which the club was allowing.

“All the neighbors are dumping their debris instead of the New Bedford trucks, causing a nuisance,” the archived minutes read.

In 1953, a permit was granted to John Cruz to have the City of New Bedford fill his property on Gorham Street. Permission was again granted to Cruz on Jan. 5, 1954 for additional dumping of tin cans and ashes.

In March of 1954, the Board of Health voted unanimously to revoke the dumping permit, noting that Board of Health Member Benjamin Dunn said “it was a nuisance.”

The board’s clerk was instructed to notify the city that “further dumping is prohibited by New Bedford and anyone else” on Gorham Street.

The Board of Health unanimously voted at that meeting to suspend all dumping permits on Donald Street and post a no dumping sign.

At the same meeting, a permit was granted to New Bedford to dump tin cans and ashes on the property of John and Albert Santos on Arch Street.

The ban on Donald Street did not last long, as dumping resumed by 1957.

Gerald Sylvia, who owned land on the street, called the Board of Health in September and “stated New Bedford can begin dumping on his property.”

“The Clerk sent a letter to New Bedford requesting they again begin dumping on the above property,” the archived minutes read.

Earlier in the month, Gerald Sylvia had staked off the property after a resident “directed the trucks to the wrong place.”

“The City dumped on the street and other persons property, but have since had the bulldozer clean up the debris,” the documents read.

By 1959, all dumping permits granted in the vicinity of Donald Street were canceled, although dumping would continue in the South Dartmouth neighborhood heading into the next decade. 

On Nov. 21, 1960, the Board of Health inspected a lot on Fern Street that the City of New Bedford was filling in, noting that “the conditions were very bad.” 

Letters were sent to the property owners requesting that “the debris be covered over with dirt, otherwise further dumping would be prohibited.”

On Oct. 3, 1961, a City of New Bedford truck “dumped some material from the city sewers on the property of Mr. Joseph Martin” on Fern Street.

Earlier in the year, the Board sent a letter to the City of New Bedford “to refrain from dumping” on the street until further notice after a resident reportedly saw rats in the area.

The Board of Health was told “this incident was a mistake and on 10/4 the material was cleaned up and covered with sand.”

By the mid-1960s and onward, dumping was conducted either by private businesses or individual residents, with no mention of the City of New Bedford.

While the MassDEP also found the city responsible for the past dumping, the department previously wrote that Dartmouth is potentially liable for these costs “regardless of the existence of any other liable parties.”

The town could be on the hook for up to three times the cost of testing and cleanup, as well as 12% interest on any costs already incurred by the department — and it may also be liable for damages to natural resources caused by the chemicals, according to MassDEP’s notice of responsibility.

Cleanup in the neighborhood is scheduled to begin later this month.

Copies of the archived minutes are attached to this story.