BERLIN – Citizen concerns about a chemical spill at Berlin Falls Park dominated a town council meeting this week.
Following a vote by the council to spend more than $107,000 for cleanup of the June spill, residents criticized municipal leadership for not addressing the issue sooner. They said officials should have been aware of any issues with the property when they purchased it.
“We bought this for $2.5 million and we didn’t look in one building?” resident Shaun McGowan said.
On Monday, the council voted unanimously to pay $107,524.83 to Chesapeake Environmental Services for cleanup at Berlin Falls Park following the chemical spill that occurred in late June as several old buildings in the park were being demolished. While there was no discussion at the time of the vote, the spill was the sole topic of concern voiced by citizens during the public comment portion of the meeting. When asked about the cause of the spill, Town Administrator Laura Allen said she couldn’t comment at this point.
“We’re still investigating what happened at the park,” she said. “There’s not much we can say about it because it’s an ongoing investigation.”
When resident Don Fletcher asked if the town had sought pricing from more than one company for the cleanup, Allen said the town had been more concerned with addressing the spill quickly.
“I don’t think we had time,” she said. “We needed to respond quickly.”
Allen confirmed that the town had been made aware of the spill via a Facebook post on June 26 but couldn’t say much more.
“It’s an ongoing investigation so I can’t speak to the length of time the chemical was on the ground itself,” she said.
Fletcher questioned whether it should be the town or the contractor who was demolishing buildings at the park who should pay for the cleanup costs.
“I think maybe the town needs to use litigation to try to minimize this cost,” he said.
Allen acknowledged his suggestion.
“I think it’s fair to say the town will take all steps that it can legally and responsibly to recover the cost,” she said.
McGowan, referring to a news article in which Mayor Gee Williams said he hadn’t been aware of any chemicals on the property, said the chemicals were cited in a 2017 report the town had received from EA Engineering. The report, which refers to a previous 2015 study, states, “Remnant unused material was identified in various outbuildings on the subject site, which included industrial process chemicals, compressed gas cylinders, and above ground storage tanks. A recommendation was made for removal/disposal of remnant materials.”
McGowan said the study he quoted was focused on the condition of the park’s ponds but had nevertheless noted chemicals in the buildings.
“You were warned,” he said. “They told you they were there. It wasn’t part of their report but they at least gave you a heads up and from what I can tell, nobody acted on it. That’s negligence.”
McGowan said that if there was litigation, the demolition company would likely point to the reports to prove that the town knew the chemicals were on the site.
“This is something you offered up as a park for people to take their families, take their kids, take their dogs, and it’s written right there you knew stuff was in these buildings,” he said.
He said that if the town used what was left of the $3 million bond to purchase the project on the $107,000 cleanup, there would be nothing left for future work at the park. He said that was in spite of the fact that it would cost a substantial amount to demolish or make usable the large building on the site. He compared the situation to business deal gone bad.
“It’s like with any company, sometimes you get into something and it becomes bad debt…,” he said. “What do you do? You cut your losses and run because if you keep it and you keep going with it it’s just going to get worse and worse.”
Resident Deborah Fletcher said she agreed with everything McGowan said.
“It’s a lemon,” she said. “It’s a nightmare. Stop the bleeding. Cut your losses.”