MassDOT Under Fire for Stockpiling Hazardous Debris Next to Public Housing in Chelsea

A hazardous materials warning sign reading "DANGER: Asbestos may cause cancer, causes damage to lungs, authorized personnel only, wear respiratory protection and protective clothing in this area" hangs from a post in front of an uncovered pile of construction debris.
A hazardous materials warning sign warns of asbestos in an uncovered pile of construction debris next to Route 1 and the Prattville-Fitzpatrick public housing neighborhood in Chelsea. Courtesy of GreenRoots.

MassDOT officials are under fire this week for dumping asbestos-contaminated construction debris next to a public housing neighborhood in Chelsea, one of the state’s most racially diverse cities.

As first reported earlier this week by Cheryl Fiandaca, a reporter for WBZ, the uncovered pile of construction debris had been dumped along edge of Route 1, between the southbound ramps to Route 16/Revere Beach Parkway next to the Chelsea Housing Authority’s Prattville-Fitzpatrick neighborhood.

Rosanne Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based environmental justice advocacy organization, told Fiandaca she was “infuriated by it, absolutely infuriated. Folks always say what is environmental justice? What is environmental racism? Here it is. This is a prime example of it. The state is dumping contaminated material next to low-income communities and communities of color.”

According to Census estimates, well over half of Chelsea’s residents (57%) identify as people of color. Among all of the commonwealth’s cities and towns, only Randolph and Brockton have a higher proportion of non-white residents.

In a letter delivered to Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino on Wednesday evening, MassDOT Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver confirmed that the debris pile was their responsibility, and was imported to Chelsea as a “temporary stockpile” from a bridge construction project on Route 107 at the Lynn/Saugus line starting in the summer of 2021.

Gulliver’s letter asserts that initial soil tests did not detect any asbestos or other hazardous materials in the debris pile.

But when contractors were preparing to remove the debris, a hazardous materials expert noticed “a small area where some pieces of pipe and building debris were present in the stockpile’s soil,” wrote Gulliver. “It was common for many building materials manufactured prior to the 1980’s to contain asbestos and testing confirmed the presence of asbestos in this small area.  Soil removal was subsequently halted and the portion of the stockpile where the asbestos debris was observed was covered” on May 4, while Fiandaca was reporting on the issue for WBZ.

MassDOT officials say that they have complied with all Department of Environmental Protect regulations for reporting the hazardous material, and that their contractors will remove the debris within the next two to three weeks to truck the material to an out-of-state landfill.

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