Resident goes onto site of former courthouse to test for hazardous materials, tells officials
An East Cambridge resident said he entered the grounds of the neighborhood’s former courthouse Sunday to test samples for dangerous substances, reporting the results to city officials and to his neighbors on Friday and publicizing it in the form of a series of tweets.
A “lab test confirms that large amounts of Sullivan Courthouse asbestos are sitting out exposed to the air and wind and rain in a highly disturbable, decayed and dusty form just [around] 20 yards from East Cambridge residences,” resident Loren Crowe wrote.
State Rep. Mike Connolly, upon learning of the situation, said Friday that he alerted the state Department of Environmental Protection to take action.
The former 1970s-era Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse towers 22 stories over the neighborhood on Thorndike Street and is languishing in a prolonged debate over whether it will be developed into an office building with 24 units of housing. Leggat McCall Properties won a bidding war for redevelopment rights in late 2012, but legal battles and a plan that relies on parking leased from the city has delayed work.
With the building guarded but not maintained by the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, residents have worried that asbestos and other dangerous materials within have begun to leak out through flooding, ruptured steam pipes venting to the outside and unsealed rooms facing the surrounding streets.
“Even residents who strongly disagree with the current plan have legitimate concerns about the deteriorating state of the building, which is known to be filled with toxins,” Crowe wrote Aug. 20 in a Medium post titled “Elected Officials Opposed to Courthouse Redevelopment Play Politics with East Cambridge’s Safety.”
In a tweet sent Thursday afternoon, Crowe shows himself in rubber gloves and a filtered mask and says, “DCAMM won’t test for asbestos in the Sullivan Courthouse? Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
In the Sunday excursion he describes, he went onto the property on the Spring Street side of the building to a room that is “100 percent unsealed” to gather powdery materials from the ground – once part of the ceiling in the room, but since crumbled from decay. He posts a letter from Schneider Laboratories in Richmond, Virginia, where he said he sent the material, saying the tested materials are 30 percent asbestos fibers, when the federally allowed limit is 1 percent.
Connolly said Friday that he became aware of Crowe’s actions Thursday. “As soon as I saw this report last night, I immediately contacted MassDEP and requested that they respond to these concerns,” he said. “If it is confirmed that the building is now posing a threat to the public, then the state is obligated to immediately take action to address the situation.”
The state representative went on:
“In my meeting with DCAMM last month, I asked what the state would do in the event it was determined the building was posing a risk to the public – they told me they would have to immediately address it, regardless of the status of any disposition process. I’ve also been in contact with city officials and state Sen. Sal DiDomenico to make them aware of the concern.”
He continued to follow up with city and state officials Friday morning, Connolly said, and spoke with City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, who said he’d forwarded the report to the acting fire chief. “So at this point we are looking to MassDEP and the city’s fire chief to advise on next steps,” Connolly said.
City Councillors told him Thursday when they received a report from Crowe and forwarded it to him, Connolly said.
Crowe did not report taking any direct environmental safety actions himself, but said a neighbor thought to tell the state’s Environmental Police on Friday by calling their emergency number.
In the Aug. 20 post, Crowe blasted Connolly and DCAMM because Connolly has quoted the state agency as saying the courthouse “does not pose a threat to public health and does not pose a risk to the environment”; Crowe called the July 23 statements from the state agency “evidence-free assertions.”
He is similarly critical of city councillor Quinton Zondervan and Acting Fire Chief Gerard Mahoney, who gave his own assessment to the council July 29 that “the building is unoccupied and secure but does not presently present a hazard that requires intervention.”
“I instructed the personnel of the Cambridge Fire Department several months ago that nobody was to go in the building for any response of any kind without full protective clothing, including respiratory protection. I would say based on the fact that they had been water leaks in the building and the building is sealed up, there is probably a preponderance of mold in the building. There is, in my opinion, no need or benefit of personnel from the fire department going in to examine that building,” Mahoney said. “I do not have any concern that the building is exposing people to cancer-causing toxins.”
That a burst steam pipe June 1 pumped asbestos into the open air was “highly unlikely” because where asbestos was used during construction of the era “would have little to no interaction” with the steam pipe, Mahoney said.
Crowe’s post disputed the officials’ findings at length, linking to documents and photos and saying that “in asserting that the building is safe, these elected leaders are showing themselves to be out of touch with both courthouse supporters and opponents in the neighborhood who see ample evidence for concern,” though he also sees a political motive: “As the opposition has seen their arguments successfully confronted, they have retreated to ever more tenuous redoubts. Now, a new tactic has emerged where a few elected officials opposed to the current redevelopment plan have resorted to playing politics with resident safety” to block the Leggat McCall courthouse plan.
Zondervan said Friday that he saw the situation differently, saying Crowe’s findings only underscored “the irresponsibility on the part of the state to place our safety in the hands of a private, for-profit, unaccountable developer.”
“Selling the building to a private developer removes our ability to ensure it is rapidly remediated,” Zondervan said. “The building belongs to the state and they need to clean up their mess immediately … the building needs to be torn down and a clean site needs to be handed over to the city of Cambridge ASAP.”
The 40 Thorndike St. tower was put up in the 1970s despite strong opposition throughout the residential neighborhood, and it began to be vacated in 2008 for renovations. But it was so decayed and ridden with asbestos that the Middlesex County Superior Court remained in Woburn, and Cambridge District Court moved to Medford; the final residents of the building were the prisoners in the jail atop the building, who were moved to the Middlesex House of Corrections in Billerica in June 2014.