Known as the Blackburn & Union Privileges site, this former manufacturing area in Walpole was added to the Superfund “National Priority List” in 1994.
The site has been in existence since the 1600s. In 1891, it was a factory making tires, insulating materials and rubber products. After 1915, the site was converted to a crushing mill for asbestos used in brake and clutch linings for vehicles. In 1937, the site became a textile mill under the auspices of Kendall Co.
Thirty acres in size, the sites were formed as part of 10 water rights districts along the Neponset River in the 17th century. Current owners are Shaffer Realty Nominee Trust and BIM Investment Trust. Municipal wells within four miles of the site supply drinking water to about 19,500 Walpole residents, with the nearest well within one mile.
In 1988, the two owners (Shaffer Realty Nominee Trust and BIM Investment Trust) complied with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directive that required them to remove waste tanks buried on the property and dispose of them off-site in a designated landfill.
At that time, the owners were also ordered to perform a comprehensive site assessment to determine the extent of the asbestos contamination at the site. A second order, in 1992, was issued to Shaffer and W.R. Grace (of Libby, Montana fame) to perform whatever remediation necessary to prevent the actual or potential release of further asbestos into air or water. Grace owned the asbestos crushing mill through a subsidiary.
The EPA reached an agreement with W.R. Grace and the Kendall Co. which included not only cleanup protocols but the recovery of costs the EPA had assumed for its portion of the cleanup.
In April of 2001, W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and five months later informed the EPA that it could no longer afford to live up to its financial obligations under the agreement. The EPA is currently receiving some funding for cleanup from the W.R. Grace trust.
In December of 2009, the EPA completed a short-term cleanup, removing almost 30 tons of asbestos from the former mill building and disposing of drums and containers full of asbestos. In spite of that, health officials agree that the cleanup is a long way from being complete, and risks remain – risks that the residents of Walpole have been facing for almost a century.
Asbestos, undisturbed, unbroken and in good condition, is not dangerous, according to the EPA, but the former crushing mill not only broke asbestos, but failed to institute air-containment measures to keep the broken asbestos fibers within the factory – largely because, in 1937, no one really knew how dangerous asbestos was.
The EPA plans to monitor groundwater in and around Walpole, but this does nothing for all the glasses, cups and pots of water Walpole residents have unknowingly consumed over the last 95 years – a consumption which has led to slightly elevated levels of kidney and lung cancers among Woburn females, though the Mass. Department of Health maintains the incidence is too small to be statistically significant.
Asbestos is the only known cause of malignant mesothelioma, a fairly rare but highly lethal form of cancer (of the mesothelial tissues around the lungs, heart, and abdominal organs) which commonly remains dormant for up to five decades, after which symptoms become severe enough to drive patients to consult a doctor.
By that time, the disease has invaded so much vital tissue and organs that doctors usually give a prognosis of one year, or slightly more, to live. Some doctors will treat even advanced mesothelioma with aggressive regimens of surgery and/or radiation and/or chemotherapy, but other doctors use surgery only to improve breathing and increase patients’ levels of comfort.
The best hope for mesothelioma victims, according to most doctors and researchers, is early diagnosis and treatment. That hope is now being fulfilled by a pleural fluid test which examines protein markers delivers high accuracy even in the early stages of the disease.
Sources: Walpole News, EPA website, WikedLocal.com, ATSDR