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Take My Council, Please: Chernobyl Intentions?…

**UPDATED** The following post has been updated with new pictures and additional reporting.


Controversy and passionate, if not always stimulating debate are not foreign to the Springfield City Council.  However, there are certain topics that simply do not make their way into the austere halls of 36 Court Street.  Beach erosion, Iran, and Angelina Jolie are too exotic to have any meaningful place in a council meeting.  However, radiation is not completely out of their court.

At Monday’s meeting, technically a permit hearing meeting followed by a special meeting, the Council considered a zone change at the permit hearing followed by a home rule petition.  UniFirst Corporation, a uniform cleaning service on Parker Street in Indian Orchard, proposed to purchase a slice of Hubbard Park, also on Parker Street.  The parkland would not be used for an expansion of the facility, but rather the facility’s parking lot.  The parking expansion would end a current problem of overflow parking for the facility spilling onto city side streets.

However, sale of parkland of any size is strictly regulated in Massachusetts.  The city could not give up even the slightly more than an acre of Hubbard Parkland without finding a replacement.  Solutia, which owns the private Plastics Park off of Page Boulevard, agreed to donate 21 Acres of the park to the city.  UniFirst offered to buy the parkland itself well above market value as well as fund improvements to Hubbard Park.  The extra money from the sale of the land would be used for improvements to both parks.

Dimmock Pond from the Parkland to Swapped (WMassP&I)

Buildings, Parks and Recreation Director Pat Sullivan detailed the plans that included building a retaining wall between Hubbard Park and the UniFirst parking lot.  He also explained that the money from the cleaning company would be leveraged as matching funds for additional grant money to improve the parks.  Representatives from the Indian Orchard Citizens Council offered their support for the project, noting the group had voted in favor.  Paul Caron, the former state representative and public liaison for the project, noted that the requested zone change for the parkland would only allow parking.

Councilors peppered the speakers present questions about the environmental monitoring equipment at the facility.  It was a rather awkward dance around an elephant in the room that nobody at first, appeared willing to acknowledge.  Opponents to the zone change, however were not as polite.

The uniforms cleaned at the Parker Street site come from Nuclear Power Plants and other facilities that operate with radiation.  This activity was clearly the crux of the opponents argument.  While all of the opponents were ostensibly opposed to the parkland swap, their arguments focused less on the merit of the swap rather than alleged behavior by UniFirst.

Arguments ranged from claims that the deed restricted the city from giving the land away (the restriction was repealed by a general law in the 1950’s) to claims that walking in Hubbard Park was more dangerous than outside the Vermont Yankee Nuclear facility.  That speaker went on to say “nuclear technology is simply too dangerous for safe” and accused UniFirst of illegal dumping.  Many of their complaints, however, lacked all but cursory evidence.  One resident, however, asked for better warning systems while avoiding condemnation of the land swap itself.

UniFirst on Parker Street looking South (WMassP&I)

Michael Fuller, the facility’s director answered most of the arguments, albeit with a hint of condescension, to the council’s satisfaction.  He noted that Vermont Yankee’s fence is a mile away from the plant whereas UniFirst is only yards away and that trailers on site held clean uniforms for delivery to nuclear plants.   He did not dispute that radiation levels outside the plant are above background levels, but that they were well-below danger levels and in compliance with state regulations. 

Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera, sounding a sympathetic tone to the opponents asked Fuller about the environmental sampling and reporting done at the site.  Rivera noted that his concern was not necessarily about the opponents’ fears themselves, but rather reflected a skepticism councilors have had toward state officials in light of the biomass issue.  Fuller asserted that regular data on the soil and groundwater were measured and maintained by the Department of Environmental Protection and available through them.

Opponents of the plant countered during their rebuttal that there has to be greater radiation because their own radiation detectors awaken them at night.  They further claimed that as a result the inspections belied the higher risk of radiation during the day.  Ultimately the rebuttal was only anecdotal evidence and unproven accusations.

Dimmock Pond was site was the site of a UniFirst spill in the early 1990’s, however, that appeared to involve no radioactive material.  Rather, according to reports on the DEP’s website, the spill was caused by a when a piece of equipment malfunctioned and spilled oil into the storm drain, which discharges into Dimmock Pond.  Nearly all of the contaminants were cleaned up according to the DEP, but small amounts remain embedded on the pond’s sediment, but only in a small area of the pond near the storm drain.  The reports make mention of other mostly smaller spills, but many were of the same nature as the 1993 or due to a backup of water from a small fire at the facility.  In the mid 1990’s UniFirst engaged in a reengineering of the discharge pipes to filter out other oil spills.  The DEP maintains monitoring wells to keep an eye on the remaining contaminants from the 1993 spill.  Moreover, the reports’ analytics did not show any evidence of substances other than those commonly found in petroleum related spills.

Another complicating factor is that Dimmock Pond is a kettle pond.  Formed by a retreating glacier it has no natural outflows meaning that contaminants may take years to naturally breakdown.  That also means that chemicals long since banned for use on roads or in cars could remain in sediment having been carried in by Parker Street runoff over the course of a century.

UniFirst from the Parkland (WMassP&I)

Dimmock Pond is well away from where children use playgrounds.  Based on renderings, the expansion of parking would create a retaining wall to support the expanded parking lot.  Other than runoff from the parking lot, which can occur now anyway, it does not appear that there would be any other ecological damage.  Trees cut down would be replaced by fresh saplings.

Indian Orchard is not new to facilities handling nuclear or nuclear-related material.  The old Chapman Valve Plant, now the site of a solar energy farm, processed uranium for the Manhattan Project during World War II.  Although now clean, residual radiation in considerably more dangerous concentrations were present for many years after the plant shut down.  Indian Orchard is not Springfield’s poorest community, but somewhat isolated from the rest of the city, it is often left forgotten.  This project shone an usual spotlight on a section of the city that once, along with East Springfield, formed Springfield’s industrial backbone.

Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen proposed to send the measure to committee to discuss requiring UniFirst to share public reports directly with the city.  However, Parks Director Pat Sullivan noted that the city would miss deadlines for the matching grants if there was a delay.  Additionally, Council President Jose Tosado noted that no conditions could be attached to the zone change.  The motion to committee was withdrawn and the measure passed unanimously both on the zone change and the home rule petition.  At-large councilor Thomas Ashe, however, promised to hold Public Safety Committee meetings on the matter, however.


City Clerk Wayman Lee said that if the measure was not voted on by the end of the year, it may die after the new council is sworn in.  The zone change and the accompanying home rule petition passed unanimously on a recorded vote.

Radiation and safety are not to be taken lightly.  Indeed it is a matter that the council should investigate.  However, the beef that nearby residents had with the facility were not particularly relevant to the matter at hand.  Moreover, even if the proposal failed, it is unlikely that UniFirst would actually shut down.  Opponents of the plant would still encounter the same problems with the facility real or imagined.  Moreover, while the city has steamrolled over residents’ concerns in other circumstances, it seems unlikely that they would have done so in this case and done so with the citizens council’s blessing.