Facing a standing-room-only crowd of concerned residents, selectmen on Tuesday pledged to contest a recent state ruling that would water down legal accountability for long-standing contamination in Neponset Reservoir.
That ruling, issued on May 31, ends formal oversight of the reservoir by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and effectively releases Schneider Electric from future obligations to monitor and help mitigate conditions linked to pollution in the 335-acre reservoir.
The town was informed of the agency’s decision in a June 7 letter from Millie Garcia-Serrano, director of DEP’s southeast region.
While still committing to working with the town on maintenance issues related to the reservoir, Garcia-Serrano said DEP had accepted Schneider’s request to close the case. The state environmental agency had guided remedial efforts involving the lake since 1995.
“It certainly wasn’t the response we had been hoping for,” selectmen Chairman Mark Elfman conceded.
But after a brief presentation from members of the Neponset Reservoir Reclamation Committee, which is comprised of professionals and concerned citizens who oversee lake conditions, selectmen agreed to petition the federal Environmental Protection Agency to review the matter.
Ultimately, committee members hope the EPA will step in, overrule the state agency and require Schneider Electric to continue with existing cleanup efforts.
Towards that end, Elfman asked that town counsel Kate Connolly be directed to prepare a letter to federal authorities seeking intervention.
“A very stern letter,” Selectman Chris Mitchell emphasized.
More immediately, however, the town needs to develop plans to monitor the status of contaminants in the 335-acre reservoir — a testing program formerly conducted by Schneider as required by the state..
According to reservoir committee member Richard Lewis, future water quality testing could be coordinated with assistance from the town’s health and water departments — especially if Schneider granted permission to use monitoring wells installed for that purpose.
Lewis said that residual cadmium in the reservoir poses an ongoing risk to Foxboro’s well field on Pumping Station Road off Chestnut Street. Ironically, he added, that threat is greater during cold weather months when the heavy metals are more likely to be in suspension.
“During the summer months the water quality has been significantly improved,” Lewis said. “That’s one of the reasons this got approved.”
Cynthia Tracy, also a member of the reservoir committee, pointed out that 19 communities downstream from the reservoir also remain at risk from contamination.
The reservoir was created in the mid-1800s by damming the Neponset River, which still flows through Walpole and on to Dorchester Bay.
Elfman told those in attendance Tuesday night, mostly homeowners who reside on or near the reservoir, that selectmen had no intention of passively accepting the May 31 ruling.
Tuesday night’s action marks the latest chapter in a decades-old to fix legal responsibility for contamination in the reservoir.
The former Foxboro Company, which went through several ownership changes before being acquired by Schneider Electric in 2014, was found to have polluted the lake with phosphates and heavy metals for years — primarily through discharges previous plating operations.
Schneider assumed responsibility for the matter when acquiring the local firm.
More recently, Schneider argued the heavy metals pose no risk as they are buried in lake sediments and will stay there so long as they remain undisturbed. However, members of the NRRC and their consultant say the lake is growing shallower each year, which makes exposure to the heavy metals more likely.
In early 2018, Schneider informed selectmen that the company believed no further action was needed after completing a five-year study of the lake — a conclusion subsequently shared by the Dept. of Environmental Protection in its May 31 decision.