More than 172 residents
from Littleton, Ayer, Harvard, Acton and Maynard attended the three-and-a-half
hour standing-room-only pow-wow hosted by Rep. Niki Tsongas’ office at Ayer
Town Hall. The conflict between the rights of the railroad and the wishes of
the community to protect the Spectacle Pond aquifer has been going on for more
than a decade.
“I’ve received numerous calls and e-mails asking ‘how do we stop this thing?’” said Shaun Suhoski, Ayer’s town administrator. The railroad sued the Town of Ayer and won in 2002. Ayer relies on Spectacle Pond wells for 60 percent of its water.
The panel unanimously decreed that the railroad cannot be stopped because of federal law and a regulatory gap, similar to the gap that allowed the mortgage crisis. Hartz asked the panel to speak to the regulatory gap that allows Pan Am Southern to build whatever it wants on the site.
The railroad is protected by federal preemption to guarantee interstate commerce will not be interfered with by local bylaws and municipalities, said Evelyn Kitay, associate general counsel for the Surface Transportation Board.
“The board has done what it can to insure there are appropriate precautions,” said Kitay. “The [Surface Transportation] board did more than was required” in approving the facility, she added. “This project will have significant transportation benefits,” and we “found the aquifer would be adequately protected.
At least 30 residents peppered a panel of representatives of the EPA, DEP, STB [Surface Transportation Board], Ayer Town Administrator and John Edwards, counsel for Pan Am Southern.
Edwards fielded many of the questions from the audience. He avoided answering if his company would take responsibility and instead assured Schultz that a spill would not occur. Pan Am Southern has taken precautions on the “front end to make sure [a spill] doesn’t happen in the first place,” said Edwards. “If all 800 cars lost all their fuel, the [storm water] management system is designed with a capacity to handle that. We believe we’re building one of the highest quality facilities.”
Edwards had little credibility among the speakers and audience members, who frequently heckled speakers and asked questions without being recognized.
“What’s in the way of using the other lot?” asked Don MacIver of Littleton.
Pan Am Railways owns a similar auto-unloading lot across Willow Road from the site under construction that has been used for years to unload cars from trains and upload them to car-carriers for delivery to auto dealers throughout New England. CSX, a competitor, holds the lease on the now-empty and unused lot until 2016.
Edwards said, “It would be a lot cheaper and easier to use that” lot. The railway failed to re-negotiate the lease with CSX, and he refused to share further details. “The CSX lease is not in our control,” he said.
“The railroad has come to the plate,” said Suhoski. “In the spirit of communication, it has been helpful for our staff,” and allowed town personnel access to the site. The railroad broke ground in March and paving is expected by September.
Coincidentally, on March 30, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fined Pan Am Railways $500,000, the largest criminal environmental fine in the history of the state, for an unreported spill of more than 800 gallons in downtown Ayer in 2006.