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Nashua Weighs Partnership To Clean Up 150K Tons Of Toxic Waste at Mohawk Tannery

Most of New Hampshire’s riverside mills and factories have closed. But they’ve left their mark - and in some cases, a lot of toxic waste.

For decades, Nashua has struggled with what to do with waste from the Mohawk Tannery, a factory that produced leather for sixty years. Now, the city is considering a private-public partnership to clean it up, but the details are still up for debate.

When Elizabeth Caswell moved to the Nashua neighborhood where her fiance grew up, she heard a lot about the smell that used to waft from the old leather tannery down the river.

“He remembered hot summer nights. They’d have their windows open. And that smell would just fill their house - just that rotten garbage smell” she laughs. “I don’t know how to say it any other way.”

“Hellish” is how Bill Anderson puts it. Anderson, 91, lives down the street near Caswell’s in-laws. His wife was one of the residents who tried to push for greater oversight of the tannery during the 1970’s.

“The smell would stop everything,” he remembers.

Anderson says it was sometimes so bad, he would have to cancel barbeques. And even when the windows were closed, the smell would seep in.

“In the middle of the winter, in the middle of the night, it would wake you up right out of a sound sleep, and I mean that.”

The Mohawk Tannery closed in 1984.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened on the planet,” he laughs. “Everybody was very happy of course, because there was no more smell.”

Elizabeth Caswell’s house is just a few blocks away from the old tannery site. People didn’t talk about it much after it closed, but last year, she learned the site still contained over 100,000 tons of toxic waste.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Caswell says the most visible remains of the tannery are concrete foundations and a fence surrounding it.

And that wasn’t all. An adjacent parcel of city property contained 22,950 tons of material with asbestos. And another few acres, called the Fimbel Door landfill, contained around 33,000 tons of sludge waste and material with asbestos.

“We were like” ‘Say what?’” Caswell recalls. “‘There’s what there? Uh-oh.’ And that really got me into research and digging, and I wanted to know more information.”

Caswell, who’s a science teacher, spent months with another resident, Rhiannon Robinson, poring over reports at the Nashua library and online.

They learned that the Mohawk Tannery used carcinogenic chemicals to tan hides and stored the waste in lagoons on the property.

After it closed, the owner, Warren Kean, allowed other companies to use the site and dump even more waste. In 2006, Kean and his holding company, Chester Realty Trust, paid a small settlement to the EPA. The money didn’t come close to covering a full clean-up.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
From 2003-2007, a citizens committee debated whether to put the tannery on the Superfund National Priorities List. It decided not to, citing greater urgency for clean up in other regions and redevelopment potential in Mohawk.

Alexandra Dunn is the regional administrator for the EPA in New England

“Mohawk Tannery is what is sometimes referred to as an orphan site,” she explains.

Mohawk Tannery is just a proposed superfund site. The EPA conducted a partial cleanup in 2000 and 2001, and it monitors the water and soil surrounding the site, but its power ends there.

“There’s no longer a corporate successor that has the assets of what was the Mohawk Tannery,” she says, “So this one - the cleanup really is on the American taxpayer.”

With the completion of the Broad Street Parkway in 2015, the tannery site has become prime real estate - easily accessible, with nice views of Mine Falls Park and the river. Nashua and the EPA have been hoping a developer might come along.

And then they got a proposal from developer Bernard (Bernie) Plante. He’s in the process of buying the tannery.

Today, he is bringing neighborhood residents and EPA officials on a tour.

Plante leads the crew through knee-high grass to the first lagoon - it’s about 60 feet from the Nashua River.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Bernie Plante holds a chunk of the "toxic sludge" for residents to smell.

He pulls on plastic gloves and reaches into a bucket of the lagoon waste - a muddy cocktail of rotting hide, animal hair, and chemicals, including chromium and dioxin.

"This is what the stuff looks like," he holds out a chunk.

"Can you smell it?"

"Yah that’s what it used to smell like," someone laughs.

Plante says he will deal with all the waste strewn across 40 acres by consolidating it into these two lagoons. Then he’ll build a secant retaining wall around them, and cap it to prevent seepage.

That’s the EPA recommendation.

After that, Plante says he will build around 300 multi-story housing units, a commercial district, and a riverfront park on the remediated site.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Plante says he's spent "hundreds of thousands" over the course of three years developing a cleanup and development plan for the Mohawk Tannery.

“I think in the long-term this is going to be a very nice development and I think it’s worth the effort,” he says. “Finding properties like this, notwithstanding the environmental issues in the city, is very difficult. They’re practically non-existent.”

The EPA hopes this is such a promising slice of real estate that Plante will pay for the majority of its cleanup, which could total $10-12 million. The EPA says it can kick in a couple million dollars.

And the clock is ticking to figure this all out.

A year ago, former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt put Mohawk Tannery on a priorities list to fast-track cleanup, partly because Plante was willing to help out. The EPA needs to finalize its recommendations for what this will look like by March 2019.

But it can’t move forward with any of this until the city of Nashua signs off. Which means Bernie Plante needs to convince residents that he’ll do a good job.

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
Chuck Venne (far right) grew up near the Mohawk Tannery and says the only way to guarantee its safety is to remove all the waste.

Chuck Venne, one of the neighbors on the tour, stands underneath a maple tree eyeing a overground pit of toxic waste.

“I’m not convinced yet,” he says.

He points to the open lagoon.

“Those lagoons over there are the ones I used to ride around in my bicycle!” he laughs. “Of course they were a lot juicier back then.”

Biking around the lagoons seems to be a teenage ritual in Nashua - many of the people on this tour, including Bernie Plante and an alderman, say they got to know this place as kids on bikes.

As we head to a grass-covered mound of asbestos, I ask Venne what it would take to convince him.

“To remove everything, which they’re not going to do,” he says.

Many residents want officials to remove all the waste. Some have relatives with health problems that are likely the result of toxins from other factories in the region.

Others worry that without proper monitoring and with increased risk of floods, the waste stored onsite will haunt the city in a few decades.

But Plante and the EPA say trucking everything off to a landfill in Rochester would costs too much - an estimated $30 million.

“I think the concept that this material can be moved off cannot be done,” says Plante. “EPA can’t do it. No one can afford to do it.”

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
The EPA accepted public comments on its cleanup proposal this summer. Despite public outcry and a petition Caswell organized with 400 signatures, only 18 formal comments were submitted.

After the tour Elizabeth Caswell, the science teacher, sits on her porch grading her students’ assignments.

She says she’s nervous about the EPA’s cheaper solution to store the toxic sludge on site, despite countless reassurances that it’s safe.

And she still has questions about what the developer has in mind.

“Whatever he puts there is going to change the neighborhood. It could be awesome, or it could hurt us.”

But after lots of meetings with the developer, the city, and the EPA, Caswell is starting to think it might be worth the risk.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Alderman Tom Lopez says after recent riverfront developments, some Nashua residents are wary of big promises from developers.

Her alderman, Tom Lopez, is also trying to be realistic.

“We were given this situation and we do have to do what’s best for the neighbors,” he says.

Lopez says the city has an opportunity now, and EPA doesn’t have the resources for full removal anyway.

“And the reason those resources aren’t there is more of a national conversation,” he says.

Alexandra Dunn of the EPA says that the current proposal is the only way "to get the cleanup done protectively with a partner - the city and the developer - that want to see something happen at the site and return the land to productive use, which is a huge part of the EPA’s program."

Nashua could wait to make Mohawk Tannery a superfund site, but this could take decades. And the EPA says the cleanup proposal then might still be to cap the waste onsite, without including the nearby Fimbel Door and city properties that Plante has offered to clean up to sweeten the deal.

And during the long wait for that EPA attention, there’d be no clean up at all.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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