Town officials reject Bliss Corner cleanup responsibility

Oct 5, 2021
Dartmouth officials told federal and state environmental agencies last week that the town should not be responsible for the cost of cleaning up PCBs and other toxic chemicals found in a Bliss Corner neighborhood.
Meanwhile Bliss Corner residents are expressing frustration with their fortunes being left in limbo as the federal Environmental Protection Agency studies how to deal with an unknown amount of unknown hazards dumped in the area decades ago by as-of-now unidentified people or companies.
Officials “categorically reject” claims by the Environmental Protection Agency that the town is responsible for transportating  and locating the contaminants in the area, according to a letter written to the agency Sept. 28 by attorney Roy P. Giarrusso on behalf of the town.
The exact location of parcels being referenced and the source of information citing the town’s responsibility for transporting and locating the material to the area have not been identified, the letter reads. 
The letter was sent by the law firm of Giarrusso Norton Cooley and McGlone, a Quincy-based firm serving as counsel to the town on this issue. 
“The town categorically rejects EPA’s suggestion that the town is somehow an arranger or (even more perplexing) a transporter of hazardous substances to unspecified properties in the Bliss Corner Neighborhood,” according to the letter.
“The Town is still left guessing where, exactly, EPA plans to conduct the work,” it read. “For that reason alone, the notice fails as a matter of law.”
This past April, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued “Notice of Responsibility” letters to Dartmouth and New Bedford municipal governments stating that both the town and the city will likely be on the hook for cleaning up the area.
In the letter, Giarrusso wrote that New Bedford was “known to have brought ‘ashes and tin cans’ among other waste into the Bliss Corner Neighborhood as fill.”
The town is “left to assume’’ that EPA “directed the content of this letter at the City of New Bedford’’ and “simply used that letter as a template for the letter directed at this Town.”
The call for a clean-up is just the latest chapter in an ongoing effort to address dumping of dangerous chemicals in the area.
Neighbors fear illness

David Faria remembers happy childhood days running barefoot and catching turtles around Milton and McCabe streets, where he grew up.

Decades later, children can no longer experience such classic memories in those parts of Bliss Corner. Instead, lots are now protected by fences, their soil affected by high levels of lead and polychlorinated biphenyls — also known as PCBs.

“It’s a sin with a capital S,” said Faria, 80, a former Select Board member and police officer. 

The EPA reports that PCBs cause cancer in animals and potentially in humans. In addition to causing cancer, animals exposed to PCBs have shown other health effects, including impacts on their reproductive, immune and endocrine systems.

If no action is taken, the EPA said the soil “will continue to pose a threat to human health and the environment.”

Faria worries that the dumping nearly cost his sister her life. 

She was diagnosed with sarcoma, lost her leg to the illness and was told by doctors she was lucky to have survived, he said.

“How about all the other sisters out there, the brothers and mothers and fathers?” he asked.

According to the EPA, soil around 20 Bliss Corner properties were well above the federal lead level and one exceeding the federal level for PCBs.

Attorney Betty Ussach, who had a client living in the neighborhood, said the contamination likely exists even past the quarter square mile area around a vacant property located at 85 McCabe St. — where the PCBs were first discovered.

Ussach said her client, who has since passed away, recalled seeing the dumping happen at a location near the Dartmouth Street Stop & Shop just over the line in New Bedford.

“There’s a housing project over there,” she said. “That’s not included in the Bliss Corner investigation.”

Liability unclear

It currently remains unclear who will bear the brunt of the cleanup cost and what that final cost will be. An EPA spokesperson said “it is premature to speculate about potential costs at this time.”

MassDEP’s letter noted that the department “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 and around the 1950s — something the town objected to.

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 MassDEP — and it may also be liable for damages to natural resources caused by the chemicals, according to the notice.

Diana Jaynes, who owns Blue Eagle Printing on 10 Kraseman St., said that last she was told, commercial properties like hers would be liable for their own clean up.

“We feel we should not be liable for any clean up, since we came into this property in [the] early 2000s,” she said.

Steps amid an uncertain future

Under the EPA’s cleanup plan, the agency will remove soils to a depth of 3 feet below ground surface or until the state’s standard for lead (200 parts per million) or total PCB (1 parts per million) is achieved.

Some of those in the neighborhood have already begun to prepare their properties.

Little People’s College owner Kim Rego, whose property at 52 Donald St. was found to have an “imminent hazardof contaminants in the soil in 2019, said the affected areas have either been fenced off or covered with a thick layer of pea stone or wood chips.

“We wanted to fix this right away,” she said.

One soil sample from the daycare’s front lawn showed levels of PCBs present at 400 times the safety standard of 1 part per million for residential areas, while another sample taken from a play area showed levels of lead at 5300 parts per million — 26.5 times the residential standard of 200.

Toxic chemicals found on the property included arsenic, benzo(a)pyrene, and dibenzo(a,h)anthracene as well as lead and PCBs.

“Nothing’s by where the kids are playing — they come first,” Rego said. “It’s not the prettiest, but you can drive by and see’’ the fencing.

She keeps parents informed so they are not surprised along the way, she added.

Ussach said that her client’s property, which contains lead and other chemicals in its soil, is currently being sold.

“The person who is buying is fully aware of it,” she noted.

But for other property owners, Ussach said they don't have that quick remediation.

“Some of those people — that house is their only major asset,” she said. “What are we going to do for those people who want to deed, remortgage, or leave [the property] to their children?”

While Ussach is pleased to see the federal government take action on the chemicals, she hopes this is just the first of many steps in cleaning up Bliss Corner.

“I don’t think we’ve nearly reached the point where the problem is resolved,” Ussach said. “Taking care of five properties is not taking care of the problem.”

Faria agreed.

“Every single ounce of PCBs in the Town of Dartmouth has to be removed from the Town of Dartmouth,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to be suffering because of ugliness’’ perpetuated by others.

A copy of the town’s response to the EPA is attached to this story.