Pond's toxic spirit cast out; Hoccomocco could be beach.
WESTBORO - Secluded inside a circle of tall trees off Otis Street are the blue waters of Hoccomocco Pond, one of the more scenic parts of town.
But residents must admire the scene from a distance. Once frequented by swimmers, boaters, hikers and fishermen, the town-owned pond has been closed to the public for three decades. It is contaminated with cancer-causing creosote, which seeped into the water and into the ground while the site housed wood treatment operations from 1928 to 1946.
Alongside the 27-acre pond, telephone poles, railroad ties, pilings and fence posts were saturated with creosote to be preserved. All these years later, crews are still extracting a toxic sludge from more than 100 feet below ground.
"We know that oily product isn't going away anytime soon," said Jim DiLorenzo, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's project manager for the pond site.
That oily product is known as DNAPL, or dense non-aqueous phased liquids, which is creosote mixed with other chemical compounds. The gunk is pumped out of the ground through wells and trucked off site for disposal.
For the last few years, crews have been removing 75 to 100 gallons of DNAPL every month, and the cleanup will continue indefinitely.
But the safety concerns raised decades ago no longer exist, and Mr. DiLorenzo thinks the pond could be opened for public use again.
"I think it's in the foreseeable future within the next couple of years, definitely," he said.
Meanwhile, the EPA will work to determine if there's a way to accelerate the cleanup.
Under the purview of the EPA, the extensive remediation of Hoccomocco Pond (also spelled Hocomonco) began nearly 30 years ago, when the site, off Smith Parkway and Otis Street, was made part of the federal Superfund program.
Soil, sediment and water have been cleaned. The contaminated soil and sediment remain on the property, sealed securely in landfills. There is a low level of contamination at the bottom of the shallow pond, but not enough to concern the EPA.
The main concern is that the dense contaminated liquid below ground could migrate up. Mr. DiLorenzo said the EPA will continue to monitor the situation. His team visits the site quarterly.
The closest municipal well is more than a quarter-mile away, and water samples from the well have always been clean, Mr. DiLorenzo said.
The cleanup project, estimated a decade ago to cost $10 million, is paid for by Beazer East of Pittsburgh, which acquired the wood preservation company and the Hoccomocco property many years ago. The EPA determined Beazer to be liable for the contamination, so the company is footing the bill.
Someone is on site once a week to remove the oily substance from the ground, Mr. DiLorenzo said. Once a year, groundwater and sediments are sampled. The landfills are checked and mowed twice a year.
Bulky equipment from a water treatment plant, built earlier in the cleanup, remains at the site. The equipment is no longer in use, but Mr. DiLorenzo said environmental officials disagree about whether it should be removed in case there is a need to treat pond water again.
Town officials want water treatment equipment removed from a building on the site so the Department of Public Works can use the space to store town equipment, according to Town Manager James J. Malloy.
"It's as clean as it's probably going to get," Mr. Malloy said of the pond. But he also said he's not sure if the town should take over the property after EPA determines it is clean enough for public use. "There may be liability issues," he said.
The town's public health director, Paul R. McNulty, supports reopening the pond. "There's no more liability than with any other town property," he said.
Residents might not immediately jump at the opportunity to dip their feet in water that was once tainted with carcinogenic chemicals, but Mr. McNulty said he would tell residents the property was safe, and the only way people could come in contact with the materials is if they enter the fenced-off area and dig down into a landfill.
Mr. DiLorenzo said the EPA would hold public meetings or an open house at the pond to educate people about the issues. "I'm sure there are concerns out there," he said.
He foresees no limitation on the use of the property, except for a ban on motorized vehicles. Once the pond is open, it would be open to people who want to walk, fish, wade in the water and use small boats. (There could be restrictions on fishing, but not because of the contamination.)
Hoccomocco Pond, named for the evil spirit Hobomoc, who - legend has it - dwells in the water, was used as a public beach from 1967 to 1971, according to local historian Kristina N. Allen. Centuries ago, the site attracted American Indians, particularly Nipmucs, who camped there, Ms. Allen said.
Although it's cordoned off by a chain-link fence, the site is visited every year by third-graders, who learn about the pond's history, Ms. Allen said.
"I think it's a very pretty parcel and it has a great legend to go with it," she said. "Any beautiful resource should be able to be used by the town."
ART: PHOTO; MAP
CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Hoccomocco Pond, swelling with rainwater this week, could be opened for recreational use before long now that the worst of the contamination has been cleaned up. (MAP) Hoccomocco Pond
PHOTOG: (PHOTO) T&G Staff/JIM COLLINS (MAP) T&G Staff/STACEY ARSENAULT