WALLINGFORD — It might seem like a no-brainer for companies to clean up soil contaminated by industrial pollution, but it’s not that simple when the process might further damage the ecosystem.
The contaminated land is owned by electronics manufacturer Ametek Inc. and spans 2.3 acres between 5 Toelles Road and 21 Toelles Road.
It’s a swampy wooded area bordered by FedEx on the west, the railroad tracks to the east and Wharton Brook to the south — very near the North Haven town line.
Pfizer Inc. sold the property to Ametek in January 1988, but under state law regarding property transfers, often referred to as the Transfer Act, the pharmaceutical company is responsible for cleaning up the heavy metal contamination in the soil.
Nickel released from air vents as a vapor settled in the parking lot and washed into the wetlands by rain runoff, according to DEEP officials. The soil must be removed completely, disposed of in a licensed facility, and replaced.
In 1988, the Transfer Act didn’t stipulate removal deadlines for hazardous waste and contamination, but that changed about 10 years ago. Now companies must clean it up within eight years after the purchase is handled.
According to DEEP records, the investigation began in June 2001.
Pfizer applied for a permit from the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission in July. The commission reviewed the project last week, but tabled the discussion.
A site investigation with town planning officials took place Aug. 11, and a special meeting is scheduled for Wednesday for commission members and the public to tour the site.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on a special permit for fill and excavation at 7 p.m. Monday in Town Hall council chambers, but no action is requested for that evening.
Town Environmental Planner Erin O’Hare said this is a major potential impact project and the biggest she’s ever seen.
The entire area would be basically clear cut, except for trees with a 15-inch diameter at breast height.
Plans call for clearing approximately 27,192 square feet of most vegetation and excavating down 2 feet to sufficiently remove the nickel contamination. An additional approximately 70,335 square feet would be excavated down 6 inches, with hand-shoveling between the shallow roots of the remaining trees.
That raises three big concerns for her, she said, even with erosion controls and a plant restoration plan in place.
“The plants are thriving,” she said. “The birds are singing. It’s been there for 40 years. It looks great. You expect it to be a barren wasteland when you hear hazardous waste. So why are we doing this? I’m still not to the bottom of this.”
Her main concern, she said, is that the entire site lies in the Wharton Brook floodplain forest wetland, but 1.1 acres within that area is located in a designated FEMA floodway.
That means if the area were to be hit by a hurricane or microburst it could be devastating to the area if the soil is gone, she said.
The plan proposes installing a temporary storm water outfall unit and a temporary rip rap protection swale, as well as an over-the-ground by-pass pipe to convey upland storm flows and re-route them to the temporary unit.
It’s also a critical habitat for the eastern box turtle, a state species of concern.
The plan proposes canvassing the project area for any turtles and relocating them during the project.
By removing all vegetation, invasive species could move in and thrive with no natural enemies, O’Hare said.
Plant restoration would involve monitoring 900 new plants over an eight-year period, and an invasive plant eradication plan is proposed to prevent the colonization of the sunny, formerly shaded, densely vegetated forest floor.
Although the project needs permits from DEEP and the Army Corps of Engineers, the town Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission can add conditions — like restoration and reforestation — to a permit approval, or reject the application if Pfizer fails to provide the required information.
O’Hare said she’s unclear on why this project needs to happen with all of the potential risks.
“I understand in their mind it would be beneficial to … bring the nickel down to acceptable levels,” she said. “I want the DEEP to tell me that the costs, of which there are many, outweigh the benefits.”