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658WVN #489: Voters asked to approve project in problematic location

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  • waylandvoters1
    Mar 11, 2013
      Dear Wayland Voter,

      Once again, voters are being asked to approve a major project on the assumption that obvious problems will be solved. In the past the result was significant extra cost to taxpayers.


      "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." -- George Santayana

      At the April Town Meeting we will be asked to approve another large building project in a problematic spot. This time it's a DPW facility. And this time the most interesting problem is not water but the presence of an explosive gas: methane.

      Methane comprises most of what comes out of the pipes labeled "natural gas," which heats our homes and hot water. It is highly flammable, odorless, can continue to migrate and change concentrations, and, if ignited in an enclosed space in the right concentrations, readily explodes. Hundreds of homes explode each year in the US as a result of natural gas leaks.

      Methane is also a normal decomposition product of organic material, including that put into landfills. That is why methane monitoring of landfills, both active and closed, is routine. Methane levels from a closed landfill decline over time as the organic waste decomposes, but it can take many decades to dissipate entirely.

      Methane has been detected at the recently closed Wayland landfill. Normally that would just mean that additional monitoring would be warranted. But the area where the major hit was found is adjacent to the proposed River Road site for the new DPW building. And the level measured at this site is very, very high.

      From a January 16, 2012 letter from Weston & Sampson engineers, part of the file on the town website:

      "Methane migration poses a danger to building occupants because the gas is odorless and tasteless and can infiltrate structures via floor drains, cracks and gaps in concrete floors, and utility conduits. Methane can act as an asphyxiant and is highly explosive in concentrations as low as 5% by volume."

      To understand the significance of the measurements, a bit of high school chemistry is required.

      In order to burn (or explode in a confined environment) a flammable gas must be mixed with oxygen. And the mixture must have the right ratio of gas to oxygen to burn. Assuming the oxygen is supplied by atmospheric air, the range of burnable mixture ratios is defined by what is called the Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) and the Upper Explosive Limit (UEL). If the ratio of gas mixed with air is below the LEL there will not be enough to burn. If it is above the UEL the ratio is too high to burn.

      That's why the gas in the pipes reaching your home can't explode in the pipes. The concentration is well over the UEL. (Near 100%, in fact). When the gas is released into the atmosphere, as in a burner, it will eventually dissipate and the concentration drops under the LEL. But as it starts to dissipate the concentration passes through the range of flammability, so that if it's ignited it will burn. Which is exactly what happens at every gas burner.

      The LEL for methane is 5%. The UEL is 15%. The most recent measurement made at the "hot spot" at the landfill is 39%.

      Initial reports indicated only that the measurement had exceeded 25% of LEL, or 1.25%, which is the regulatory trigger requiring notification to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. But in fact the measured level is over 30 times higher. So high, in fact, since it's way above the UEL, that if a hole were poked in the ground and a spark applied, flames would shoot out of the ground as the gas mixed with air.

      Officials advocating the DPW project downplay the issue. DPW Director Don Ouellette, for example, emphasizes drops in the measured levels from older readings above 40%. But those are minor variations given how far above UEL the readings are. And Ouellette couldn't explain to Board of Public Works members the significance of the numbers. See
      starting at time stamp 1:18 through time stamp 1.32.

      Building advocates maintain that the problem can be mitigated with ventilation and alarms, similar to the manner in which radon is handled. But radon is only an issue in terms of long term exposure. A momentary failure of a radon ventilation system would be insignificant, whereas a momentary buildup of methane could be catastrophic.

      This is far from the first major building project in Wayland in recent years. And not the first time we are asked to approve a project with serious environmental risks. In each case, we have been told that modern engineering can deal with the problems. But in each case, to one degree or another, the engineering fix failed.

      The best known is the Wayland Public Safety Building. Built on a site everyone knew was soggy, engineers designed a "waterproof" basement. But Town Meeting was asked to supplement the original $5 million budget several times to deal with unexpectedly high costs in dealing with the sogginess, ultimately upping the building price tag to over $8 million. Even so, in 2010 the basement flooded, putting the town on the hook for over a million dollars worth of repairs and rendering the basement largely useless forever.

      The Baldwin water treatment plant cost $10 million to build and was supposed to handle the iron and manganese contamination in the Baldwin wells while largely eliminating the use of chlorine, which many find unpalatable. The alternative would have been heavier reliance on the Happy Hollow wells and more chlorine use to deal with bacteria, but at much lower cost. But the engineers who designed the Baldwin plant failed to anticipate the common problem of iron-eating bacteria. The bacteria, living in the iron-rich Baldwin wells, clogged the delicate filters in the high-tech treatment plant. The only solution has been copious use of chlorine to pre-treat the water, obviating much of the benefit of the plant, along with more frequent replacement of the pricey filters.

      The latest example may be the new high school. Built on the lowest part of a generally soggy site, the designers thought they addressed the problem with slab construction and extensive, but conventional, drainage designs. On Feb. 27 the drains became blocked and classrooms flooded.

      It is unlikely that all of the engineers involved in these projects are incompetent. But any good engineer would admit that risks can be mitigated but never reduced to zero. (Disclosure: this writer holds an engineering degree from MIT.)

      It may be that the most serious risk is not to the proposed DPW building itself, but to workers in the yard. DPW operations involve the use of large heavy equipment with sharp edges. Imagine the scenario of a piece of equipment near the landfill side of the property rolling over a rock, poking a hole in the ground and making a spark at the same time.

      The willingness of town officials to accept the risk of building on this River Road site, despite the availability of an alternative site on Route 20 (former septage facility), seems in sharp contrast to an almost paranoid reaction to taking any risk in other situations. For example, officials refused to consider the recommendation of the Energy Initiatives Advisory Committee to purchase the town streetlights so they could be converted to LED, citing concerns over liability.

      Measurements on the Route 20 side of the landfill have shown only minor levels of methane, far under reportable levels. And locating the DPW facility on that side would avoid the access issues described in the last WVN newsletter. But some town officials are promoting a massive new apartment complex for that site. More on that in a future newsletter.

      Most probably, engineering fixes to the hazard of methane will be successful. But probably isn't definitely.

      --Tom Sciacca


      The committee working on an extensive year-long celebration of Wayland's 375th anniversary beginning June 6 now has a website:

      And a Facebook page:

      At the website you can find Wayland history, photos, events and a variety of 375-logo paraphernalia. The Wayland 375 Committee welcomes volunteers and donations.


      MEETINGS CALENDAR - check town website for posted agendas: http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/index

      MONDAY, March 11:

      School Committee, 7 p.m. FY14 budget forum, then regular meeting agenda, e.g.WaylandCares

      Historical Commission, 7:30 p.m.

      Housing Partnership, 7:45 p.m.

      TUESDAY, March 12:

      Audit Committee, 7 p.m.

      Public Ceremonies Committee, 7 p.m.

      Zoning Board of Appeals, 8:20 p.m.

      WEDNESDAY, March 13:

      Energy Initiatives Advisory Committee, 7:30 p.m.

      THURSDAY, March 14:

      Economic Development Committee, 8:30 a.m. (MORNING) Town meeting preparation for proposed River's Edge housing project

      Energy Initiatives Advisory Committee, 11 a.m.

      Permanent Municipal Building Committee, 6:30 p.m.


      Tuesday, March 12: 2013 Town Meeting warrant to be posted on town website

      Wednesday, March 13: Deadline to register to vote in April local election and town meeting.
      Election informaton: http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/WaylandMA_Clerk/election

      Monday, March 18: Deadline for DEP public comment period ending for the draft permit for a groundwater discharge at town building fields. The public can ask for a public hearing.
      Taxpayers are expected to be asked at the April town meeting to approve paying for the already prepared study that led to the Town's application for the permit, after two officials negotiated an Administrative Consent Order with the DEP. Funding will be sought under the current year transfer article.

      Tuesday, March 19: Planning Board continued Finnerty's public hearing (150 Main Street)
      Board of Public Works meeting

      Wednesday, March 20: Selectmen meet to sign town meeting warrant.

      Thursday, March 21: League of Women Voters Candidates Night

      Friday, March 22: US mail delivery of April 4 town meeting warrant booklets

      Tuesday, March 26:

      DPW project public forum, 7 p.m.

      Board of Health meeting

      Wednesday, March 27: Selectmen's Warrant Hearing for town meeting

      Thursday, March 28: MassDOT's public hearing for Rt 30/27 intersection construction project
      Saturday, March 30: DPW Open House, 195 Main St., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

      Tuesday, April 2: Wayland Town Election, Specimen ballot posted on town website: http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/WaylandMA_Clerk/specimenballot2013.pdf

      Thursday, April 4: Town Meeting begins, High School Field House

      Friday, April 5: Deadline for submitting public comment on NStar's 2013 vegetation management plan. NStar notified the Town in a Feb. 15 letter about its 2013 plans, including proposed use of chemical herbicides in the 8-1 and 8-2 transmission corridors, which includes Wayland residents' private property. The 8-1 corridor is the Oak Hill/Meadowview neighborhood decimated last year by NStar's clear cutting. The 8-2 corridor is the east/west corridor running roughly from Russells to the Weston town line. Concerned residents can ask the Town Administrator to please post NStar's correspondence and map on the town website.

      Sunday, April 7: Town Meeting continues from 1 to 6 p.m.

      Wednesday, April 10: New Open Meeting Law training sessions offered by the attorney general's office:
      Nearest location is Waltham.

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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor