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There Goes The Neighborhood: Living Next To A Superfund Site

This article is more than 12 years old.
Nearly 30 years after Superfund designation, Billerica's Iron Horse Park still an enduring toxic site, where human exposure to contaminants is not under control. (Courtesy Stephen Mayotte)
Nearly 30 years after Superfund designation, Billerica's Iron Horse Park still an enduring toxic site, where human exposure to contaminants is not under control. (Courtesy Stephen Mayotte)

BILLERICA, Mass. — Do you live next to some of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites and not even know it?

More than 30 years after a federal law designated the worst of the worst so-called Superfund sites, there are still 31 in Massachusetts. As federal budgets are squeezed, it could be decades more before they’re cleaned up.

That was a surprise to Mark Sampson.

Twelve years ago Mark and his wife were looking for a home to settle down for good. Their two girls were little then — a toddler and a baby. And the Sampsons found a ranch-style house for sale in a quiet Billerica, Mass. neighborhood.

"[We] saw it on a Monday night; it was 6 p.m. I parked on the side of the road," Sampson said. "We literally did what we’re doing right now, which is walking down the center of the street. We never had to get out of the way for a car. I said, this is where I want to raise the kids, a really safe neighborhood."

Or so he thought. His safe neighborhood came with big caveat.

"We found that there’s a Superfund site within 2,000 feet from my front door," Sampson said.

It’s a big site, nearly a mile square. It's called Iron Horse Park, an industrial complex built up around a railroad yard a century ago.

Iron Horse Park: A Superfund Site In Billerica
(Click an image to start slideshow)

Today, there are decrepit manufacturing facilities, rusting rail cars and wastewater lagoons. A toxic waste, one of the nation’s worst, is just past the trees at the end of Sampson’s street.

"That house at the end of the street, the Superfund site is actually right behind it," Sampson said. "No fencing, no anything. We could actually walk into the site from here, which is really scary, as a dad."

Here’s the kicker: for years, he had no idea he should have been scared.

Sampson's girls went through preschool and he didn’t know about the toxic waste site next door. They went through kindergarten, still no idea. They learned to ride their bikes in the street, elementary school — still no clue. It was only nine years after moving in that the family found out. Fortunately, the girls never played in those woods.

Actually, there was this smell. A chemical smell. You could taste it.

"You couldn’t leave your house to go out and even have a nice barbecue because the odor was so bad," Sampson said.

The EPA says human exposure risk is still “not under control.”

When Sampson made some calls to find out where it was coming from, he found out about the Superfund site. More than 61,000 people live within three miles. Among the contaminants: asbestos and lead.

The Environmental Protection Agency says human exposure risk is still “not under control,” even after three cleanups since Iron Horse Park was first listed as a Superfund site in 1984.

Sampson knows all of this, now. He’s been weighing in on the EPA’s current proposal to do a fourth cleanup. One plan to carry it out would last until at least 2031.

"If you think back, it’s been on the list since 1984," Sampson said. "That will push this to a 50 year cleanup, and we're still not sure if it’s clean or not."

An alternative option would only take five years. But that plan would cost an extra million dollars, five million instead of four. Sampson says he feels like the EPA seems more worried about the budget.

"Four million right now to the government is a lot of money, right?" Sampson said. "So, it might as well be a billion I guess, is the way I’m perceiving it."

Sampson wants to give the government a chance. He's where he wants to live, he just wants peace of mind. If Iron Horse Park could get cleared of its Superfund status, he says he and his wife would be happy to stay here.

"It makes me happy to be in a neighborhood with all great people," Sampson said. "My girls are growing up and doing great and all that’s working out. But always in the back of my mind is the Superfund site and the problems that are there. How do we get the government to do what they are really appointed to do? It’s sad. It really is."

Where's the one closest to you? The 31 Superfund sites around Massachusetts:


Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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