The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

Posted Jan 31, 2019 by: David Foss, CPG, LSP The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

What’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done?  I’ve considered that question as an endurance athlete and environmental professional.  [I am setting aside maintaining a happy family and raising two wonderful children.]

I’ve completed some challenging tasks: a marathon in the Negev Desert, a 6-hour trail race in 18” of snow, and ultramarathons in the heat and humidity of August in New England.  Endurance sports provide an opportunity to overcome physical challenges, push psychological limits, and test one’s mettle.  As an environmental professional, I’ve participated in competitive project interviews, and managed complex cleanups and emergency response actions.  However, on December 20, 2018, I came face to face with the most difficult challenge I had ever faced. 

Josette, a friendly member of the senior center board, gave me a hug and said, “Thank you for everything you did.” 

300 Years of Industrial History

In 1669 English setters in the area that we now call Walpole, Massachusetts, entered into a land treaty with Philip, sachem of the Wampanoags.  Philip was the son of Massasoit who had earlier made the treaty with the colony of Plymouth.  Peaceful coexistence was not long lived; between 1675 and 1678 King Philips War was waged, concluding with the defeat and displacement of the native Americans from southern New England.  At about the same time, approximately one century before the Declaration of Independence, commercial and industrial activity began at the site on the banks of the Neponset River.  The site was known as The Blackburn Privilege and The Union Factory Privilege, one of ten areas “granted” for industrial use by the English Monarchy.  

Manufacturing included the production of snuff, iron, nails, cotton and wool.  After 1891, operations included a tannery, rubber and tire manufacturing, and other industries that involved the use of hazardous substances, including chromium, arsenic and mercury.  Beginning in 1915, Standard Woven Fabric Co. manufactured asbestos brake and clutch linings. In 1920, the company changed its name to Multibestos, which must have sounded like a post-modern good idea in the heady days following World War 1.  In 1937, a new operator used the site for cotton and fabric production.  Industrial operations ceased in the mid-1980’s.  The long-term handling of industrial waste and waste water resulted in significant contamination in groundwater and soil at the site and in sediments of the flood plain of the Neponset River. 

For generations the factories had provided jobs and bolstered the economy of the Town.  The industrial complex was surrounded by residential neighborhoods and was only a short walk from the town common and village center.  That commerce, however, left a legacy of contamination and impacts.  After 300 years of cooperative coexistence between industry and neighborhood, the facility shut down and the site became derelict, a safety hazard, and source of environmental risk. 

Superfund:  30 Years of Quagmire

Municipal leaders, Town employees, and neighborhood residents raised their voices.  Concerns were documented and contamination was identified.  Years passed.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and United State Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating the site and enforcing on the Responsible Parties – the businesses that caused the contamination and the corporations that owned the liability.  Years passed.

“Short-term” cleanups, to address immediate threats to human health and the environment were conducted.  In 1988 buried tanks were removed.  In 1992 soil contaminated with asbestos was excavated, consolidated and capped in an area creatively called “the burrito.”  Also, in 1992, an aluminum plate arch was built over a 400-foot segment of the Neponset River to prevent off-site migration of contaminated soil; and the site was fenced to ensure the cap was not disturbed.

Ten years following the closure of the factory, the Town was left with huge abandoned buildings, made “safe” by a perimeter of chain link fence topped with barbed wire.  The blight on the neighborhood was entrenched.  Municipal leaders, Town employees, and neighborhood residents raised their voices. 

In May 1994, the site was placed on the National Priorities List (NPL).  It was now a Superfund site regulated under CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act).  The Superfund site law codifies thousands of pages of federal bureaucratic procedure and protocol.  The EPA negotiated with the performing parties.  The performing parties designed cleanup strategies.  The EPA commented on draft remediation plans, and plans were revised.  From the perspective of an outside observer, it may have appeared that there were more lawyers involved in the process than environmental professionals.  Years passed.   

In 2008, after more than twenty years of blight and abandonment, municipal leaders, Town employees, and neighborhood residents took a significant step.  Following the arcane legal mechanisms of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Town established the Walpole Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC) with the primary mission of restoring the Site to economic viability.  With the EDIC, the Town had pulled a seat up to the table as a stakeholder with the EPA and Responsible Parties.  The Town was just in time, in October 2008 the EPA decided upon the “final” cleanup plan.  The Record of Decision was published establishing clean-up criteria to be met by the Responsible Parties. 

With the Record of Decision issued, the Responsible Parties had to prepare engineering plans to achieve the cleanup.  Those plans required review, revision, review, and approval.  Years passed.

Concerns were reaching a climax in summer 2013. The local news headline read, “EPA detractors: “No end game” at Walpole Superfund Site.”  Frustration grew as it appeared that the Responsible Parties were going to cleanup soil around the exterior of all the factory buildings, but would leave behind the buildings and any contamination beneath the building foundations.  Their argument was that contamination under the buildings was “capped” and therefore not accessible.  This approach would leave the Town with vacant buildings not fit for re-use, underlain with contaminated soil.  The situation seemed bleak.  But sometimes it is darkest before the dawn. 

In December 2013, the EDIC and Board of Selectmen approved a plan for the Town to redevelop portions of the Superfund Site.  A major sticking point - - and a significant point of compromise from the perspective of the Town - - was that the Town would pay for the demolition of the buildings.  There was a substantial cost for demolition, but with the building structures removed, the EPA would require the responsible parties to cleanup all the soil to meet the requirements of the Record of Decision. 

The decision of the EDIC and Board of Selectmen is one thing.  However, this plan needed to be approved by Town Meeting.

Brownfields Redevelopment:  Who owns the Liability?

The cast of characters in this drama was long.  Each person was playing their role and advocating for their “client.”  The representatives of the Superfund Responsible Parties provided plans to meet regulatory requirements, but with the goal to minimize costs for their firms.  The Record of Decision did not require the Responsible Parties to demolish the buildings, the Responsible Parties were not required to bear those costs.  The EPA regulators enforced the regulations, and ensured work was done in accordance with legal approvals with the focus on statutory requirements.  The Town (elected officials and staff) advocated for protection of public health and economic development.  After 300 years of industrial activity and 30 years of Superfund quagmire, the site was at a tipping point.  What was needed was a ‘big picture’ plan, and a way to communicate it to the Town.

I worked with the EDIC, Health Department, and Board of Selectmen to conduct numerous workshops and informational sessions.  Neighbors, concerned citizens, and Town Meeting members expressed their hopes, dreams, and goals for the property.  Those are the details that architects, engineers, and planners put onto design drawings.  My role was to communicate about liability and risk.  If the plan came to fruition, the Town would own a portion of the Superfund site and would redevelop the property with a new Police Station and Council on Aging facility. 

“Will the Town be responsible for the Superfund site?”  I heard variations of that question scores of times.  After taking ownership, the Town could enter into a legal covenant with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for liability protection.  The Town could establish legal agreements with the Responsible Parties and the EPA.  But those agreements were contingent upon taking ownership of the property.  Liability could not be 100% eliminated but the risks to the Town could be minimized.  Those are challenging concepts to explain to voters who had been reading and hearing about how dreadful the contamination was at the Superfund site.  Their concerns and fears were legitimate.  I know exactly how it feels to participate in Town Meeting.  Voting “no” is often easier, as the perception is that doing nothing should cost less than doing something.

Understanding environmental liability and taking ownership was one step in the process.  But to turn the corner and put the site to productive re-use, the Town would also be voting to spend $10M on the new Police Station and $7M on the South Street Center (Council on Aging).  These were momentous decisions for the voters and Town Meeting. 

Big Challenge – Big Reward

On October 20, 2014, I was the environmental professional working for the EDIC and Town to explain the Brownfields redevelopment program to Town Meeting.  Walpole has a representative Town Meeting, with about 160 members representing eight precincts.  After numerous public information sessions, I was familiar with many of the Town Meeting members and they knew me.  On behalf of the EDIC, I presented the redevelopment plan and then at the direction of the Town Moderator, I addressed questions and concerns.  It was the most high-stakes public presentation I have ever given.  It was intense.  I felt like a witness on the stand in a court case, but instead of being questioned by one attorney I was being cross-examined by an auditorium full of inquisitors.  To make it more challenging, I shared their concerns.  I strongly believed in the plan and I knew that it could be a success.  But that Town Meeting vote was a decision to start the process.  I could not offer guarantees.  I could only explain the facts, describe how the cleanup process works, and that steps would be taken to make sure that everyone would be protected during construction and after development.  I was the advocate and spokesperson for the EDIC and municipal leadership team.  My role was to help them move their project forward.  I am confident that I did my best and I am happy with the outcome.  Looking back, I now realize that was the day that I faced my greatest professional challenge.

With the decision made, the workers got to work.  The clock sped up and the dream was on the path to realization.

  • 2015: Demolition of the factory buildings
  • 2016: Removal of building slabs
  • 2015 to 2017: Remediation of soil
  • 2017 to 2018:  Construction of the Police Station and South Street Center

On December 20, 2018, I attended the ribbon cutting at the new South Street Center.  The opening of the new Council on Aging facility was a grand celebration with an overflow crowd.  The new municipal buildings are beautiful.  They were designed and built to serve the Town of Walpole for the balance of this century.  It is my sincere hope that as the residents of Walpole spend summer afternoons at playing bocce on the banks of the Neponset River, they remember the industrial history and appreciate the efforts of everyone who contributed to the project’s success. 

I’ve spent many hundreds of hours in support of this project.  But it wasn’t until Josette gave me that hug and said, “Thank you” that I had the realization about my small role in the project success. 


Acknowledgements: Hundreds of people played important roles in the success of this project.  The ribbon cutting for the South Street Center was recorded and municipal leaders shared their gratitude and appreciation for the whole project team far better than I am able.  However, if offered they opportunity I would dedicate the project to the following people who kept the dream alive.

  • Robin Chapell, Health Director
  • Bernie Goba, EDIC
  • Michael Boynton, former Town Administrator
  • James Johnson, Town Administrator
  • Josette Burke, Neighbor, Council on Aging Board


  • “Panel proposes mix of uses for Walpole Superfund site,” The Boston Globe, July 10, 2005.
  • “Senate Passes Walpole EDIC Bill,” WickedLocal Walpole, July 29, 2008.
  • “EPA detractors: ‘No end game’ at Walpole superfund site,” WickedLocal Walpole, July 5, 2013.
  •  “Approval gained to building on South Street Superfund Site,” WickedLocal Walpole, December 6, 2013.


David Foss, CPG, LSP Principal Hydrogeologist Wilcox & Barton, Inc.