Acton rejects pollution settlement; state strives to build waste disposal plan

This town of 19,000 has shut down three of its eight wells because of groundwater pollution. The source of at least some of the pollution is hazardous waste generated by W.R. Grace & Co. The company admits causing the problem, and it has offered to clean it up. But the town and Grace are at loggerheads over details of a settlement.

Yet the problem of how to dispose of hazardous waste is becoming more urgent in the region today. A study by Arthur D. Little Inc. of Cambridge shows 375,000 tons of hazardous waste are generated in New England each year. Because there are few hazardous-waste dumps in the region, the waste is exported to states such as New York and Arkansas.

Because of the costs involved, the business community is begging for permission to build waste-treatment facilities in the region. Communities are crying ''not in my backyard,'' earning the acronym NIMBYs. And state government is in the middle: Business accuses it of dragging its heels and communities say it is trying to locate dangerous dumps nearby.

John MacLeod, manager of the Acton Water Supply District (AWD), says the contaminant 1.1-dichlorethylene was found in two of the town's wells in 1978. They were immediately shut down, he says.

The state and federal government eventually settled with Grace out of court, with the company promising to clean up the problem, he says. But, Mr. MacLeod notes, the town began negotiating its own demands. It wanted Grace to clean the underground aquifer, build and maintain a water-treatment plant, and provide monetary compensation for legal fees and the lost use of the wells.

The negotiations hit a roadblock last November, MacLeod says. The discussions had been progressing, he says, but what Grace finally offered in writing was ''a total insult.''

In January, AWD broke off negotiations and reaffirmed its intention to seek a town wells. Those were shut down last week.

Nigel Palmer, a Grace vice-president, says the company has been negotiating seriously. ''We don't think it appropriate to write a blank check, but we've made it clear we will pick up any expenses we've caused.''

Mr. Palmer says he doesn't understand what has caused the water district to break off negotiations. A new water-treatment plant is operating, he says, and the town does have clean water. Grace is cleaning the aquifer, and the company has offered the town a new well in compensation, he says.

Palmer says perhaps ''they don't understand some of the issues.'' If they did , he implies, they would agree to a settlement. He says if AWD presses its demands in court, it is unlikely to receive anything approaching $22 million, and Grace will withdraw such concessions as the additional well.

The two sides are not separated by major issues, he says. It would be a shame for it to ''fall apart now because of minor differences.''

But Eric Lund, legal counsel for AWD, says significant differences exist between the negotiators.

For instance, AWD asked Grace to accept strict water-purity standards. According to Mr. Lund, Grace agreed. But, he says, ''they gave themselves an out'' by saying any existing state or federal water-quality standards would preempt Acton's. Lund says Grace knew all along about federal standards, which are lower than those sought by the town.

And the new well Grace offers is in the same aquifer as the first two polluted wells, and is even more contaminated, he adds.

Outside Acton, controversy over siting hazardous-waste facilities continues. In 1980 Massachusetts enacted legislation to regulate hazardous-waste sites. The law seeks to promote the building of new sites, but to ensure they are environmentally safe.

A facility is being planned in Warren, Mass. But Larry Lowenthal, a member of the citizens' group Stop-it, says, ''hazardous wastes are the problem of the producer.'' NIMBYs, he says, need not feel guilty.

But the business community says it must have waste-disposal facilities. Eric Swider, president of the New England Council, says if such facilities are not available, New England companies may take their business elsewhere.

State Secretary of Environmental Affairs James S. Hoyte says his office is trying to reconcile the different interests. Part of its plan encourages business to produce less waste, he says. But his office is also informing the public that environmentally sound facilities can be constructed, he says. Without them, he says, problems such as illegal dumping are more likely to occur.

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