Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

November 7, 2013

Town deserves answers on wastewater sludge case

The Andover Townsman

---- — To say the battle between Bancroft Road resident James Berberian and the town of Andover over the dumping of wastewater sludge on his property three years ago is a complex, layered, even potentially political charged one is a vast understatement.

Any time a community shells out a reported $500,00 in legal fees alone to deal with a situation that has resulted in a federal lawsuit, it is going to raise questions among townspeople, if not their ire.

This summer, it looked like a settlement — to the tune of $440,000 being paid by the town to Berberian — was within reach. That deal, reached through non-binding mediation, was devoid of any admission of liability or wrongful conduct by the town. But Berberian’s failure to also reach a separate agreement with a private contractor that had done work on his property, as he had stipulated, squashed the deal.

If one assumes Berberian will settle for no less than that previous $440,000, the town is looking at being on the hook, at the very least, for $1 million when all is said and done. And that “when” is still nowhere in sight.

The case dates to November 2010 when Berberian videotaped town Water Department employees cleaning out the 6 million-gallon water storage tank at Bancroft School. His video shows them dumping dark-colored water into leaking trucks and into a nearby storm drain. That drain flowed down Bancroft Road and onto Berberian’s property at the corner of South Main Street adjacent to Phillips Academy.

The brownish water contained dark sediment that ended up settling in about an acre of wetlands on Berberian’s property. When that sediment was tested, he says it showed high levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, cadmium and nickel.

After months of failing to get the attention and answers he expected from town officials, Berberian filed a federal lawsuit in February 2012.

In recent weeks, Berberian has become increasingly vocal about the case, bringing his story to the local and Boston media and demanding that he be heard at public meetings, as he was this past Monday night when he secured a 15-minute time slot during the public comment period on the Board of Selectmen’s agenda.

Allegations of cover-up and malfeasance were bandied about by Berberian as he highlighted key reports, correspondence and other materials he has compiled. He contends those documents clearly show that town officials have admitted fault and have skirted their responsibility and liability, all while putting the health of his family, including several children, as well as the greater community at risk.

Berberian asserts that the town’s own reports and paid employees have acknowledged higher than allowable levels of arsenic — in one case two times the imminent health hazard level, he says — in the water coming out of the Bancroft water tank.

For selectmen’s part, they say the matter is in litigation, which prevents them from discussing it in detail. But selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli did read a statement Monday night following Berberian’s presentation that said it is not uncommon for sediment to build up in large water tanks such as the 6 million-gallon Bancroft one.

But pointing to an October 2011 report and other testing that has been conducted, Vispoli asserted the town is confident the drinking water consistently being suppled to Andover residents “has been tested and found to meet standards set” by the state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Why, then, has this matter dragged on for three years? No one agrees to hand over close to $1/2 million to settle a case if one doesn’t exist in some fashion.

It is hard for us to imagine any town official in Andover would knowingly put the health of the people they are elected to serve at risk. It’s hard, too, to imagine they wouldn’t take claims to the contrary seriously, even if they consider them to be entirely without merit.

Still, plenty of questions have been raised and doubt has been cast. In our eyes, the burden of proof rests with the selectmen as the town’s elected leaders. They owe it to assure residents that when they go to pour a glass of water from their faucets for their children, they never have to think twice about whether it’s safe.