So-called “volatile organic compounds” were detected at the municipal water well at Keyes Field in 1984. In came the EPA, who closed the well and began investigating additional ground pollution in and around the Souhegan River. It was the start of what would become a three-decade Superfund saga involving Fletcher’s Paint Works, General Electric, the EPA, and the Town of Milford.
When the announcement was made in 1989 that Fletcher’s Paints had been placed on the Superfund list of the nation’s most hazardous waste sites, the paint company’s president Mary Fletcher, sounded none too pleased. “I haven’t even had any contact with these people. The site is all cleaned up. Everything has been done. What can I say? They’re the boss I guess.” The “boss” heartily disagreed with her assessment. The EPA found unsafe PCBS (polychlorinated biphenyls) as well as other “heavy metals” that were contaminating the Souhegan River. The Fletcher Paint Store at 21 Elm Street, a storage house just down the street and the ditch running in between all went on the government’s naughty list. While residents did not seem to be in any immediate danger, EPA scientists called the pollution “extensive.”
If Fletcher was put out, she may have had potential cleanup costs on her mind. Superfund projects are temporarily funded by the federal government through a revolving oil company tax, but the feds will often sue the responsible parties to cover the cost. Up for grabs was who exactly was to blame. Fletcher’s Paint Works had manufactured and sold latex and chemical-based paints on the site since 1949, allowing purported “paint waste” to seep into the ground. General Electric was also responsible for bringing hundreds of drums of contaminated material into the area. And contributing to the soupy mess was likely the old town incinerator dump that was once located on the spot.
It was clear that the cleanup itself would be as complicated as figuring out who was at fault. Some 18,000 cubic yards and 99 boxes of hazardous substances containing paint waste were removed to New York State, the Fletcher Paints Building would eventually be demolished, and surface soils were treated, as the entire area was paved over with various layers of protection. GE ended up paying for much of the cleanup, but no one involved came out ahead. Predicting how long all this would take back in 1989, EPA environmental scientist Deb Pernice told the Milford Cabinet that Superfund cleanups averaged six years. That would prove a generous estimation.
Some 26 years later, the cleanup was still in progress, and residents heading for Keyes Field were still forced to enter through a back exit. Reporter Kathy Cleveland pointed to “soil sampling, public hearings, proposals for remedies and endless objections,” all of which added to the prolonged timeline.
Walking around the upper Keyes parking lot and adjoining grassy field these days, one would never guess that it was once the center of such drama. Today it is a beautiful slice of Milford, and if it took a while to get there, at least the end result can be applauded by all.
A map of the Superfund site in and around Elm Street.