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In letter, MassDEP seeks to refute Whately’s ‘obstructionist’ charges

  • Whately Water Commissioner Paul Fleuriel next to the failing sheet pilings and rip rap on the Mill River that is threatening the towns water supply.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Whately Water Commissioner Paul Fleuriel next to the failing sheet pilings and rip rap on the Mill River that is threatening the towns water supply. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Whately Water Commissioner Paul Flueriel next to one of the two well heads threatened by the Mill River behind him.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Whately Water Commissioner Paul Flueriel next to one of the two well heads threatened by the Mill River behind him. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Whately Water Commissioner Paul Fleuriel next to the failing sheet pilings and rip rap on the Mill River that is threatening the towns water supply.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Whately Water Commissioner Paul Flueriel next to one of the two well heads threatened by the Mill River behind him.  Recorder/Paul Franz

WHATELY — After being labeled “obstructionists” by the Board of Selectmen earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s western regional office has sent a letter to the town of Whately in an attempt to set the record straight.

The letter, signed by Brian Harrington, deputy director of the regional office, was written in direct response to a letter selectmen sent to a number of state officials labeling the DEP as a major obstacle in planning how to protect the town’s drinking water wells. The wells sit near the bank of the Mill River and are threatened with contamination.

“I must disagree with the characterization of the MassDEP as “obstructionists” on this project,” wrote Harrington. “The department has, in recognition of the concern for the wells, repeatedly stated that it would issue an Emergency Authorization for the immediate installation of sheet steel, rip rap or other material to protect the well.”

Harrington also pointed out that the DEP has submitted draft applications to and been involved in ongoing talks with the other agencies involved in the permitting, including the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

“The purpose of submitting draft applications was to allow for additional agency feedback and resolution of any issues prior to submittal of the actual applications, so that those final applications could be approved quickly after receipt,” Harrington wrote.

The letter went on to detail the various problems that the DEP has identified with the town’s preferred designs, and provided a series of recommendations for moving the process forward.

The town’s Conservation Commission, however, took issue with much of what was contained in the letter.

In an email to the Board of Selectmen, Commission Chairman Scott Jackson said that the DEP’s response contained “numerous inaccuracies” and recommended sending a letter to David Cash, the DEP’s commissioner, to request a meeting that would include representatives of the Springfield and Boston DEP offices, the Whately selectmen, project consultant Inter-Fluve, the Whately Conservation Commission, Rep. Stephen Kulik, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg and Beth Lambert of the Division of Ecological Restoration.

“Even though every alternative has been evaluated, they keep raising new ideas,” said Jackson. “I have no idea why they continue to raise obstacles. At some point, this dispute between the commission and the DEP needs to be resolved,” Jackson said.

In the e-mail, Jackson laid out a list of which parts of the letter he considered to be inaccurate, including suggestions that the town has not analyzed two alternatives as specified under the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act, that the project designs have not proposed adequate mitigation measures for impacts to nearby wetlands, and that there are issues with the location of the project staging area.

“This response makes it sound like the town is being unreasonable,” said Jackson. “There’s been two alternatives submitted and the other agencies have all determined that they are not viable. Inter-Fluve’s plan to re-route the river has been agreed to by all agencies; it sounds viable, and only the DEP has said ‘No.’”

Jackson also noted that the DEP has not consulted with the Conservation Commission, which he said also has jurisdiction over the project. He said the commission currently has an open public hearing on the project, which has been repeatedly continued at its meetings.

Jackson said the design proposed by the DEP would not be acceptable to the Conservation Commission, which he noted has “considerable expertise” in river restoration and stabilization. He said the design includes too much rip rap and sheet piling with no expectation that it would adequately protect the wells over the long term.

According to interim Town Administrator Maryellen Cranston, a letter detailing Jackson’s concerns has been sent to Nick Nelson of Inter-Fluve for review. Jackson noted at the meeting that Nelson may disagree with some of the points raised in his email.

According to former Town Clerk Lynn Sibley, Whately has faced issues with its municipal water supply since the 1980s, when pesticide use on local farms contaminated the shallow private wells in the eastern part of town. In response, the town created its water department and built the water system that taps into the wells along the river.

When the wells were installed, Sibley said, the town recognized that there could be problems with erosion and river meandering, and took steps to mitigate the risk by installing sheet piling — long pieces of steel that are driven into the river bank to keep the water away.

In March 2011, a section of the sheeting failed due to unusually high spring flooding and strong river currents and the town performed an emergency repair as a temporary measure. Since then, the town has sought to restabilize the river bank, which has resulted in the current stand-off.

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