Introduction > Wenham Lake Story

Power Plant dumps on Queen Victoria’s Ice Cubes (please note 2007 date)

By Lori Ehrlich

Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 10:49:21 AM EST

Ice cubes

I am so close to this story and to Wenham Lake that I'm swimming in them. Not literally, of course, since swimming in the drinking water isn't permitted, but what you'll see here is an epic tale of adventure with a stunning, rare and hopeful happy ending. It didn't come easy and it lays bare the many weaknesses in our laws that allowed it to happen and then remain for decades. With this cautionary tale comes a legislative safety net (H1991 An Act to regulate coal ash as solid waste) much needed in Massachusetts and elsewhere absent federal action to close a long-standing loophole in the law permitting coal waste to be handled as ordinary fill.

Spoiler alert: The Boston Globe (Jan 7, 2007) summarizes and tells the end of the story.

This irreplaceable lake, carved by glaciers, sustains 80,000 Massachusetts residents every day and was once so pure that it was literally fit for a queen. Sadly, it fell victim to greed and neglect, becoming contaminated with waste laden with such toxins as arsenic, mercury, and chromium. Don't expect a nail-biting Grisholm-esque legal battle or a regulatory victory.  Instead, what you'll find is a riveting story, history as stunning as it is ironic, star power, unsung heroes, and a great approach to remediation, restoration and protection fueled by 100% PEOPLE POWER!  

Please note: By the time we learned of the rich history of the lake, we were already well into our attempts to clean it up. Join me on this amazing journey.

Wenham Lake Ice: Fit for a Queen

Queen Victoria(Sound of royal trumpets...)  I present: Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland (1837-1901) and Empress of India (1876-1901, daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent (fourth son of George III), and Princess Mary Louise Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and...Are you ready for this?...a big fan of Wenham Lake ice!  People from London to Persia appreciated this commodity for its purity, but for some time it was only the elite who could afford this exotic product.

Wenham Lake was first harvested for ice by Frederic Tudor around 1826 in what now, in light of refrigeration, seems like a rather harebrained idea: 

In 1806, Tudor bought his first brig “Favorite” to carry Fresh Pond ice 1,500 miles from Boston to Martinique. It left dock on February 10, 1806 to the following report in the Boston Gazette:

Loading ice - No joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of Ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.

Until refrigeration came along, he had a 'hot' (so to speak) product and a global monopoly. Glaciers carved out his work space and Mother Nature kept the manufacturing process going during the cold winters here.  Cutting, carving, and often perilous transport was the name of the game.  

The ice was harvested locally in winter and stored through summers in a covered well. Ice production was very labor intensive as it was performed entirely with hand axes and saws, and cost hundreds of dollars a ton.... Wenham Lake ice in particular became world-famous for its clarity, and graced the tables of the aristocracy of plush London society. It is said without undue exaggeration that no dinner party in London was considered complete without ice from Wenham Lake.

**Enjoy this fascinating 10 minute video about the Massachusetts ice trades which won The 2004 National History Day competition. 

Everything was about to change.  Enter Thomas Edison, King Coal, greed and carelessness.

The Lights Go On!

It was several years before Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla would have their lightbulb moments and electricity would become something we could take for granted. The modern electric utility industry began in the 1880s evolving from gas and electric carbon-arc commercial and street lighting systems. On September 4, 1882, the first commercial [coal burning] power station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, went into operation providing light and electricity power to customers in a one square mile area; the electric age had begun.

Left behind: Fly Ash

The many hazards of coal burning are well documented  (air pollution, mining disasters, mountaintop removal, bursting of impoundment ponds, black lung, valley fills -- all clickable)  But coal combustion waste is one of the best kept secrets of the coal industry.  However, and just by virtue of its volume and toxicity, the secret is leaching out-- hopefully not into YOUR drinking water.

Fly Ash is a euphemistic catch-all term for Coal Combustion Waste (CCW), and copious amounts are left behind from the coal burned around the world.  It's very lightweight but combustion has the effect of concentrating certain toxic components including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc. All are toxic.Especially where there is prolonged exposure, these chemicals can cause several types of cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, nervous system impacts, cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems.  In short, coal ash toxics have the potential to affect all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.   

Unfortunately for us, the producers of coal combustion waste have enjoyed some very fruitful friendships in government over the years and still do.  As a result, it's exempt from the rules governing toxic waste disposal and is regulated, or not, as the case may be, as ordinary fill.  I've even heard tales of my local power plant offering free truck loads of fly ash for fill in yards and gardens.  Not sure about you, but I wouldn't want my tomatoes taking root in this.  Citizens in a Northern Indiana town who accepted such a 'gift' from their local power plant are now living on a Superfund site and drinking bottled water.

The U.S. currently produces about 130 million tons of coal combustion waste annually from 400+ power plants in every state.  How much is that?  This waste is primarily disposed of at the power plant site in unlined and unmonitored waste water lagoons, landfills and mines. These disposal units are operating under state rules that frequently are far less protective than rules for household trash.  Long held disposal practices around the nation involve open unlined dumping wherever space can be found.  The cheaper the better.  Just last week there was news of CCW currently dumped in a sand and gravel pit in Maryland contaminating drinking water wells with lead.  There are some new engineered landfills for this stuff, but if the law doesn't prohibit the filling of holes, there is so much of this waste, that the holes will be filled.

Note:  Since 2001, my friends and I have proposed language to tighten up these laws in Massachusetts, only to have these recycling-friendly bills languish in committee.

Under the Cover of Darkness

By 1955, around the time the Salem Power Plant was built, a local construction company had completely mined a gravel quarry that abutted Wenham Lake.  From the mid-1950's to the mid-1970's this pit, mined down below the groundwater, was filled in with various waste, much of which was coal combustion waste from the local power plant.  The site was deemed illegal but the owners continued to dump until the waste was 30-40 feet thick.  Then they stopped.  Stopped dumping and stopped paying their real estate taxes.  Eventually, the city of Beverly was the reluctant new owner of this waste pit taken for non-payment of taxes.

While You Were Sleeping: The Airport Brook

For the half century since the dumping began a stream, now known as the Airport Brook, quietly meandered its way through this enormous dumpsite and carried its cargo 500 or so feet to the lake.  This went on every day, all day, for about a half of a century.  Father Time and Mother Nature make quite a team!  Before long an area of this gorgeous lake known as the cove filled in with this waste forming a fly ash delta as it emptied into the lake.  This gorgeous lake, carved by glaciers and valued by British royalty, was now lined with toxic waste.  Shame on us. 

In spite of the tenacity of many local residents who did all they could to save the lake, years of complaints fell on deaf ears.

Enter People Power

It started for me with a phone call from Rod Daynes, an abutter of the Vitale fly ash pit.  His call was one of many when Erin Brockovich complimented my activism with HealthLink, an environmental organization on the Northsore, on the front page of The Boston Globe as the film of her tussle with PG&E and (another type of) power plant waste was about to appear in theaters.  I met him there and grabbed a handful of waste for the lab.  Results indicated that this 15-acre dumpsite was loaded with piles of arsenic-laden fly ash.  It was a start.  Then my friend, Lisa Gollin Evans, an environmental attorney, while researching EPA documents about this site spotted evidence of a plume of arsenic-contaminated groundwater, twelve times the drinking water standard, flowing toward the lake.  David Lang, the Chairman of the Conservation Commission in Beverly and a Licensed Site Professional confirmed this for us.  This fact allowed us to interrupt a sham state-sanctioned cleanup process by filing a petition for public participation, right there on the spot, by gathering signatures at a public meeting. This got us access, time, documents, and allowed us to organize with the Beverly citizens.

Next, I was put in touch with, now deceased, Dominic Manzoli, an indomitable gentleman of nearly 80 who had once stormed the beaches of Normandy.  An understandably skeptical soul, he reluctantly invited me and my attorney friends Lisa Gollin Evans and Art Burns to spend some time in his basement--a place he affectionately called his "War Room".  Once granted admittance, we were treated to aerial photographs of the lake, file cabinets full of unanswered correspondences, and documents that proved invaluable as we went forward.  In July, 2004, after his passing, The Wenham Lake Watershed Association named a very special spot on the lake, "Dom's Cove" with a lovely view of the lake he loved and a stone commemorating his 30 years of dedication to protecting it. in his honor.  I remember Dom saying, "Don't ever allow them to name this fly ash pit after me."  He carried the torch for the lake for decades before we got there.

Armed with photos and documents, it was time to check in with friend and environmental attorney, Jan Schlichtmann.   May you all be blessed with such friends!  For those of you who haven't read the book, "A Civil Action" about the ground-breaking environmental case in Woburn, you should.  Jan was portrayed by John Travolta in the also inspirational film version.  Well, here was Jan, flying all over the country working on cleaning up toxic waste sites in other communities, and this was going on right in his back yard.  He immediately sprang into action.  We co-founded Wenham Lake Watershed Association, and with Jan as President, an impressive board of volunteer scientists, lawyers, and environmental professionals was assembled. 

I should point out here that the City of Beverly, which had this pit dropped in their lap, was experiencing a high level of anxiety about the cost of a potential cleanup of the pit and the drinking water supply.  The Mayor was downright adverse but one brave Beverly City Councilor, Bill Coughlin, was unflappable in his support for our efforts since they were also his own.  The City of Salem, with 40,000 citizens drinking from the lake but no legal ownership of this mess, was an easier sell, but we were still quite a hot potato.  One courageous city councilor, Kevin Harvey, showed up for our first public event, on the Vitale Fly Ash Pit (so named by EPA).  Standing up for what's right but not necessarily popular is the work of heroes

Wenham Lake Sediment CoreWith the benefit of Jan Schlichtmann's decades of experience (and having hip waders) here's what we did to jump start the conversation.  On a bitter cold day in late January we called for a public meeting on the frozen lake. We invited members of the community, press, and elected officials and brought our own photographer out onto the ice. Thankfully the ice was nice and thick. We borrowed a gas-powered ice auger from a fisherman to drill a hole in the ice in the shallow cove.  Into that hole we inserted a 6 foot polycarbonate tube and pounded it into the lake sediment below.  The tube was then capped and retrieved through the ice and its contents were then discharged onto the ice revealing a core or cross section of lake bottom.  The photo to the right clearly illustrates that above the natural sediment of sand and silt was at least 3 feet of black ooze. This biopsy revealed a cancer in the lake.  The cameras clicked and the conversation had begun.  

Back to Good

Our cries for action were finally heard!  Within 100 days from our foray on the ice flows, we were contacted by representatives of New England Power, the original owners of the Salem Harbor Power Plant, indicating that they wanted to clean up what their company had done generations ago.  Although state law may have been shaky, they were federally liable under Superfund law for all cleanup costs. Under 'normal' circumstances stalling that process is a safe bet for a PRP (Potentially Responsible Party) not willing to clean up their mess.  Because of the action we had already taken, Jan Schlichtmann's involvement, and the growing profile of the case, New England Power made a calculation to jump in at this point and do what needed to be done.  From the joy and sincerity of those from New England Power who worked on this project and the meticulous planning and respect shown to the local citizens and environment, they deserve high praise.

With oversight of the state department of environmental protection, we convened monthly stakeholder meetings where a plan for cleanup and permitting emerged.  We were dazzled by the ambitious stream bed restoration and actual rerouting of the Airport Brook.  Numerous constructive public meetings were held and New England Power reimbursed our organization for many thousands of dollars in environmental testing.  An estimated $10 million dollars later, the lake and stream bed were cleaned up!  A monitoring plan was in place!  Drinking water for future generations preserved! Happy ending!  Queen Victoria would be proud.  But wait...

This is but one mess tidied up.  There are others.  If you have a coal burning power plant nearby, consider following the trail.  Trucks full of fly ash should have haz mat placards on them.  Abandoned mines, sand and gravel pits, are all vulnerable and fair game.  Neighbors of power plants or existing dumps should be especially vigilant.  Also people should watch out for industry-speak such as "non-toxic fly ash" "glassy spheres" "benign waste" and "dirt" analogies.  The industry spin is pervasive and well-rehearsed.  This is not dirt, not vitamins, not harmless glassy spheres. It's a hazardous substance under federal Superfund law.  When it comes into contact with water it leaches Arsenic, Selenium, Lead, Boron, Molybdenum, etc. But federal law comes into play only after it has already poisoned water--like it has in many notable sites across the nation. The EPA had promised national regulation of this waste and was supposed to hold public meetings in 2006, but that effort has been yanked.  You'll hear more from me in the weeks ahead on this.

Coal Ash Facts

     ¨ Currently, enough coal ash is being stored in waste ponds to flow continuously over Niagara Falls for more than three days straight.

     ¨ There is enough coal ash generated every year to fill train cars stretching from the North Pole all the way to the South Pole.

     ¨ Coal ash is contaminating our drinking water supplies, and it is only getting worse as the waste stream grows in volume and toxicity.

     ¨ The failure to safely dispose of coal ash transfers the pollutants captured by Clean Air Act regulations to the nation’s waters.

     ¨ Living near an unlined coal ash waste pond and drinking water contaminated with arsenic can be more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by the EPA.

     ¨ People living near unlined coal ash ponds, where water is contaminated by arsenic and ash is mixed with coal refuse, have an extremely high risk of cancer, up to 1 in 50. This is 2000 times greater than EPA’s acceptable cancer risk.