HAMDEN ——The largest residential environmental cleanup in state history has begun in the town's Newhall section, a venerable neighborhood of closely clustered former factory housing built on what amounts to a massive landfill.
The project, a decade in the planning, has been received all along the way with skepticism and uncertainty by this community of largely African American homeowners. They are tired of living with sinkholes and digging up car batteries and shell casings from the old Winchester Repeating Arms factory in their back yards, but do they don't have a great deal of faith in the cleanup either.
The area, including a former middle school, ball fields and a park, was polluted by arsenic, lead, heavy metals and partially burned waste from decades of dumping in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to fill the mosquito-infested swamplands of south Hamden. The unfettered dumping solved one problem, but spawned another.
The officials say it will take three to five years and $50 million to $70 million, half paid by state taxpayers, to truck away the dirt and replace it with hundreds of thousands of tons of clean material. The houses will remain, but decks, porches, shrubbery and anything else in the way will be yanked out and replaced.
Some trees have already been removed; the big dig starts in earnest this week on the first wave, 22 homes.
The contamination goes down 18 feet or more on some of the properties, and residents are questioning whether the 4-foot dig goes deep enough. The state Department of Environmental Protection says four feet of fill is enough to bury any potential threat, but the uncertainty lingers even as the backhoes get to roll Monday morning.
First stop for the heavy equipment: the yard around Charlie Patterson's tidy brick home on Morse Street. Late last week, the 80-year-old former New Haven police officer, paper-supply salesman and small-business owner was wrestling with what to do. His face was creased with consternation.
On Wednesday afternoon, he said he shared the concerns that the cleanup didn't go far enough but was ready to accept the work. Wednesday night, he spoke with the indomitable Elizabeth Hayes, the neighborhood resident leading the opposition, and after that conversation, Patterson decided to sign a statement rescinding the permission he gave to contractors for Olin Corp., the company that is shouldering the other half of the cleanup cost, to come on his property.
Thursday afternoon, Patterson got a visit from the DEP's Raymond Frigon, the project manager, who said Patterson and the rest of the homeowners had the right to reject the service, but if they did, they'd "own'' the contaminated soil and would be responsible for paying for it to be removed. On Thursday evening, Patterson went to visit attorney Howard Lawrence of New Haven, who is advising the coalition that opposes the DEP plan.
Thursday night, Patterson reported on his session with Lawrence.
"His advice was to go ahead and let them do the work,'' Patterson said, adding that he'll heed that guidance. "If they don't do the work properly, then there would be some sort of a course of action in the courts.''
On Friday, Lawrence said: "I've reviewed the science and the promises made by the DEP. My best advice to the homeowners in phase 1 is to accept the service. If the state does it right, then we've done the right thing. If they do it wrong, we can pursue an action. In the spring, when the next phase is about to start, we can see how it went.''
The properties in the first wave have the least amount of contamination, and the DEP has promised that for this group, 100 percent of the tainted soil will be removed, Lawrence said.
Hayes, who lives in the neighborhood but does not have contamination on her property, said she is trying to get the DEP to go down eight feet and needs the whole neighborhood pushing together for that effort to have a chance.
She asked why, if the four-foot cap is sufficient, homeowners are required to disclose the presence of any remaining contaminated soil to prospective buyers when selling their homes?
"If four feet is enough, why not call it clean?'' asked Hayes, who is convinced property values will remain depressed in the neighborhood even after the cleanup.
Frigon, of the DEP, said the disclosure is intended to protect owners of properties with deep contamination in the event that they want to dig down below four feet to build an addition. He said properly owners can dip into a fund being set up to pay for the removal of the deep contamination.