Within the past few days, Physical Plant staff have begun removing the trees and plant life surrounding the Physical Plant building located at Long Lane. The project has stirred controversy between Physical Plant workers and administrators, with the workers making clear their concern for the abundant wildlife in the woods surrounding the building.
According to Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe, the removal is part of the Long Lane Environmental Remediation project, which began in 2000 when the University bought the property at Long Lane from the State of Connecticut. Topshe explained that the property falls under the State of Connecticut Transfer Act, which requires that hazardous materials be removed from the site.
“Beginning in 2001 a Phase II environmental study and then a Phase III environmental study was completed on the property,” Topshe wrote in an email to The Argus. “These studies collected data on the nature and extent of hazardous materials present on the site and characterized them for removal and disposal.”
Various employees said that they had not been informed about the changes to the area, and they did not know what the University’s plans entailed.
“I don’t know if there is any plan for wildlife and open space,” one employee wrote in a letter to The Argus. “If there is it has never been discussed.”
Topshe confirmed that the remediation project consisted of many discrete steps, beginning with the removal of lead and asbestos in the existing buildings back in 2005.
“The second [removal], based on a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) approved by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), is the removal of ash associated with a pre-existing coal-fired power plant used on the site from the late 19th century until the late 1990s,” Topshe wrote. “This RAP was approved in 2008 from which a set of technical specifications was developed. The project was bid and awarded in 2008 with work commencing on site in the fall of 2008. Work consists essentially of excavating, sampling, and disposing of soil containing hazardous materials and then replacement with clean material. In some locations near Wadsworth Street, it was necessary to remove trees to remediate the ash contaminated soils.”
Despite the mandatory nature of the project, some Physical Plant employees have expressed concern over the practical implications.
“There is less and less of this terrain available all the time, particularly this close to campus,” the employee continued in his letter. “The pond being lowered/drained as well as the swampy wetlands north of the pond will affect the area forever. I have called the Middletown Conservation/Wetland Department about these actions and found that they are aware of them.”
Another employee said that he worried for the animals that live in the area.
“During lunch we sometimes walk to the pond, and [we] have trained the large carp and turtles to take food from our hands,” the employee wrote in a letter to The Argus. “That’s a trust between humans and wild life you don’t experience much in your life in town.”
He added that Physical Plant’s management told him that the dam would be torn down in order to drain the pond.
“When I ask[ed] about the fish and the turtles I was told that they are ‘shit fish anyway, who cares?’…Well I do,” he wrote.
Topshe said that the state of Connecticut is required to reimburse the University for costs related to the remediation. She explained that the project was suspended in 2008 due to economic conditions, but that in 2011 the state acknowledged its obligations to the University and the project began again that July. Approximately 115,000 tons of ash have been discovered compared to the original estimate of 85,000 tons, and the soil has been found to contain pesticides that the state used before the University bought the property.
The University’s Sustainability Coordinator Jen Kleindienst also confirmed that the pond near the Physical Plant building is contaminated, adding that such contamination poses issues not only for the plants and animals that live there, but also for the future use of the site for buildings, fields, and farmland.
“There are plans to remove the dam (put in place by previous owners) and restore the natural contour of the stream,” Kleindienst wrote in an email to The Argus. “While there will be a loss of trees and ecological damage during the project, once the project is finished, the result will hopefully restore the habitat to what it was 150 or so years ago instead of its current degraded state.”
However, Physical Plant employees had various questions regarding the contamination, citing the active plant growth in the area behind Physical Plant that was being cut down. They also questioned why Long Lane Farm remained unaffected.
Emma Leonard ’13, an earth and environmental sciences, biology, and College of the Environment major who is involved with WILDWes and the Composting Committee, said that she sat in on an official meeting last spring semester regarding the remediation project. She confirmed that despite the fact that the wildlife behind Physical Plant looked healthy, the soil could still be contaminated, as the effects were not always easily visible.
When asked about Long Lane Farm, Leonard said that the soil may have been improved in that area.
“They have been amending it with compost and wood chips over the course of the farm’s use and so would be essentially diluting the concentration of contaminated soil,” Leonard said. “Additionally, because much of the farm consists of perennial species, their standing biomass at the end of the harvest season is removed every year. Many of the heavy metals that would be in the soil would be sequestered in this standing biomass, and so would be gradually removed with each clearing of the farm.”
However, Leonard suspects that the soil at Long Lane Farm has had some negative consequences.
“The flip side of this, is [firstly] that some of that biomass is the food that is harvested and eaten,” Leonard said. “[Secondly,] some of the removed biomass from the previous year is recycled back into the farms soil as compost, thereby returning whatever heavy metals and contaminants they held back into the soil.”
It is unclear the extent to which the changes will affect the wildlife in the area, though Physical Plant appears to be moving forward with its plans to remediate the area.