Sunday, June 23, 2024

Doug Rader, a consultant for the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, talks with state Rep. Mike Connolly after an inspection at East Cambridge’s decaying former courthouse. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Quick repairs were to begin Friday night to seal the most obvious spots where harmful materials might leak from East Cambridge’s former courthouse – a gaping delivery bay and some open windows, a state environmental expert said. Discussion about other repairs will follow.

After a neighbor reported to city officials Thursday that asbestos was found in an independent lab test of material taken from the courthouse grounds, state Rep. Mike Connolly called for an immediate examination. The state Department of Environmental Protection sent two experts to the scene Friday, and the state agency selling the property, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, sent a consultant as well.

“I cannot express the urgency of this,” said Ken Sanderson, of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Northeast Regional Office Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup, meeting with Connolly at the former courthouse. “If DCAMM doesn’t do it, the DEP will.”

Ken Sanderson, of the Department of Environmental Protection, arrives Friday at the courthouse to talk with Connolly. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The former 1970s-era Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse at 40 Thorndike St. towers 22 stories over the neighborhood 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.

East Cambridge resident Loren Crowe, concerned about dangerous substances such as asbestos leaking out to nearby homes from flooding, ruptured steam pipes venting to the outside and unsealed rooms, said didn’t trust official assurances that the neighborhood was safe and went onto the property Sunday to get materials for testing. 

Sanderson, state asbestos expert Andrew Danikas and Doug Rader of Lowell-based TRC, a consultant for the state asset management agency, spent several minutes at the same open bay where Crowe said he gathered material for testing, then walked around the entire courthouse structure. When they returned to talk with Connolly and Dan Totten, a legislative aide for city councillor Quinton Zondervan, they had a plan in place that involved not just getting work done over the Labor Day weekend, but securing permission for work to begin that night.

A street sign by East Cambridge’s former courthouse suggests a message from city and state official not to enter the decaying structure. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As the discussion wrapped up, Sanderson got a call from an assistant DEP commissioner – the highest official he’s spoken with at the agency, and for the first time. And when Rader expressed hesitation about being able to find a contractor late on a Friday afternoon before Labor Day, Sanderson insisted that the repair would take place immediately, one way or another. And he promised that “with all certainty there will be additional DEP involvement.”

“DEP seems committed to the mission,” Connolly said later, after the groups parted ways at the courthouse. “I’m glad it’s getting this attention.”

The open bay will be sealed off permanently with a wood-capped polyethylene barrier, and a couple of the most obvious nearby broken or open windows will be sealed up, since the “mold’s not going to go away,” Sanderson said, referring to the result of several flooding incidents and steam pipe bursts since the building was emptied of its final workers and residents – inmates at a top-floor jail – in June 2014.

Repair workers bring equipment to the former courthouse late Friday. (Photo: Mark Jaquith)

Fencing will be improved, warning signs were recommended for posting and a gate where security guards enter is to be locked at all possible times “because there was trespasser access,” Sanderson said, this time referring to Crowe’s excursion onto the grounds for testable material.

Sanderson said there was a “minor amount” of potentially hazardous material on the ground, including where Crowe explored, and it would be cleared Friday night.

In an Aug. 20 post on Medium, 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.”

“Even residents who strongly disagree with the current plan [to redevelop the former courthouse] have legitimate concerns about the deteriorating state of the building, which is known to be filled with toxins,” Crowe wrote on Medium.