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Under Looming EPA Deadline, Nashua Debates Toxic Waste Cleanup

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Nashua residents and officials are debating an EPA proposal to clean up the Mohawk Tannery, a 30-acre toxic waste site along the Nashua River.

The former leather tannery has been the focus of local environmental and health concerns since it closed in the 1980s.

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt put the Mohawk Tannery on a priority list last year. This summer, the EPA proposed fast-tracking cleanup of the site by consolidating and capping waste on-site.

At meetings last month, EPA officials said the bulk of the $10 million cleanup would be funded by local developer Bernie Plante, who wants to transform the area into a commercial and residential development.

The EPA says it will split the remaining costs of Mohawk Tannery cleanup with the city.

Plante has also offered to pay for asbestos cleanup in two parcels adjacent to the Mohawk Tannery that do not fall under EPA perview and would remain contaminated without outside funds.

At a meeting on Thursday with residents and aldermen, Mayor Jim Donchess said that Pruitt prioritized Mohawk because he was "enamored by a public-private partnership" that reduce EPA costs, like the one offered by Plante.

Donchess assured residents that he wouldn't agree to the proposal without local approval and that, contrary to residents' impressions, the city had no tentative agreements with the EPA and Plante. 

"We don’t want anything to happen that the neighborhood doesn’t want," he said. "There is no secret deal; there’s a discussion to develop information so we can come to you like we are right now, and ask you what you think.”

Many residents want a more thorough cleanup that would remove the waste entirely to an off-site landfill. The EPA says this would cost about $20 million more.


Donchess said he would explore whether the EPA's estimate was accurate, and whether there is a cheaper option for waste removal.


But after decades of stalled cleanup and development plans, some are eager to take advantage of the private-public partnership.


The EPA closed the public comment period for its cleanup proposal last week.


In an interview with NHPR, regional EPA spokeswoman Kelsey Dumville stressed that the EPA won't move forward until it thoroughly reviews the comments.


"Our man objective is to protect public health and the environment, and we believe that this [proposal] does that, but we're still in the process of looking at comments and during that we'll continue to coordinate with the city."


The EPA will meet with Nashua's Planning and Economic Development Committee on October 2. EPA officials say they hope to finalize an agreement early next year.

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