Thursday, September 16, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Residents, BRA at odds on E. Boston site

Activists seek preserve; city wants industrial park.

A group of East Boston and Chelsea residents is battling the city over the future of 7 acres of degraded land on Chelsea Creek and rallying support for its hope of returning the former fuel-tank farm to a pristine wetlands.

But it faces a formidable obstacle in the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which is moving ahead with plans to convert the riverfront parcel into an industrial park for green companies.

The city says it is also planning some marsh restoration in the area, but the neighborhood group says it is not enough. And with a deadline looming, the Chelsea Creek Action Group is trying to drum up neighborhood support, plotting protests at City Hall and attempting to win official designation of the site as wetlands, which could protect it from development.

“There’s a battle going on for the site right now,’’ Eugene Benson, an environmental lawyer for the Chelsea Creek Action Group, told a gathering of people last month in East Boston. “It will either be a wonderful wetland or, if the city and the BRA get their way, it’s going to be an industrial site.’’

The site on Condor Street in East Boston was home to Hess Corp. fuel tanks until 1998, when Hess removed the tanks under community pressure. The Boston Redevelopment Authority bought the riverfront acreage for $1.9 million three years ago, but its development plans were delayed by the financial collapse and credit crisis.

Environmental activists and some neighbors of the East Boston site, meanwhile, were forming their vision of a natural wetland and bird habitat. To make the dream a reality, they have set their sights on a substantial pot of federal money that became available last year and is aimed specifically at funding environmental restoration in the Mystic River watershed.

The money comes from a $6.1 million pollution settlement that federal lawyers won last year from ExxonMobil after the oil giant pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with a spill in 2006 at its Everett oil terminal that leaked more than 15,000 gallons of diesel and kerosene into the Mystic and Island End rivers.

The US district judge in that case set aside $4.6 million of the settlement for a special fund managed by US Fish & Wildlife under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. The money must be spent in Massachusetts, with preference given to communities affected by the fuel spill.

The Chelsea Creek Action Group has applied to the federal program for $500,000 to buy the so-called brownfield from the BRA and another $1 million for an ambitious project to turn the land into a marshy wetland suitable for migratory bird habitat, some public access, and a system to manage storm water.

But without backing from the BRA and support from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, it’s unlikely that the activists’ application can make any headway with the selection committee for the wetlands conservation fund, which will determine eligibility for applicants later this month.

“We don’t fund acquisitions unless there’s a willing seller,’’ said Rachel Levin, a spokeswoman at the US Fish & Wildlife Service in Arlington, Va.

And so far, despite months of grass-roots lobbying by the Chelsea Creek environmentalists, the BRA won’t budge.

“Our goal is to have some sort of manufacturing green-technology use there. We think East Boston deserves decent-wage jobs,’’ said Richard McGuinness, the BRA’s deputy director for waterfront planning.

For now the site is dormant, and engineers hired by the BRA last year reported that it could cost more than $4 million in repairs to make the land ready for industrial use.

Meanwhile, McGuinness said the BRA has submitted its own application to the federal wetlands conservation fund for $1.6 million to improve bird habitat along the Chelsea River, the official name of the creek. Its proposal is to rebuild marshland on five smaller parcels east of the former Hess site.

Although the Chelsea Creek Action Group doesn’t oppose BRA intentions to improve wetlands along the creek, the environmentalists feel that city officials have turned a deaf ear to what residents want.

“They didn’t consider the community,’’ said Melinda Alvarado-Vega, a lead organizer for the group. “Environmental justice, a clean watershed, and access to the water are immensely important to residents of East Boston and Chelsea.’’

Alvarado-Vega said youth activists collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of their proposal and sent that petition to the mayor, but they still have not been able to meet with Menino.

At a community meeting last month at the Maverick Landing housing complex, neighbors complained that there is already too much industry and truck traffic along Condor Street.

Antonio Gambale has lived across from the old Hess site for 38 years and said the land is already a slice of nature.

“It’s a magnificent piece of God’s work,’’ Gambale said. “My wife and I enjoy the birds, ducks, and geese, egrets and great blue herons. The best thing [the BRA] could do is leave it alone and give it away as wetlands.’’

Chris Burrell Boston Globe September 13, 2010

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