Yesterday, city officials formally proclaimed the land Birch Plains Park, an expanse of lush green soccer fields rimmed by trees turning orange and brown.
"It's hard to believe it's here and as beautiful as it is," Mayor Bill Scanlon said as about 40 people gathered in the rain for a short ceremony to dedicate the field.
The event marked the end of a seven-year, $5 million cleanup and restoration that officials lauded as a model for the way politicians, environmentalists, big business and citizens can collaborate on such projects. Jan Schlichtmann, president of the Wenham Lake Watershed Association, called the transformation "a miracle."
The cleanup was overseen and paid for by National Grid, the firm that took over New England Power Co., which was responsible for dumping tons of fly ash on the site in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Fly ash is a byproduct of coal and is laced with arsenic. Over the years, the brook that ran through the site eroded the fly ash and carried it downstream. The ash was deposited in the stream banks, the surrounding wetlands and a portion of Wenham Lake, which is a half-mile downstream and provides drinking water for 80,000 people in Beverly, Salem and parts of Wenham.
After years of protests from residents and environmentalists, National Grid agreed to pay for the cleanup. The company rerouted the brook that ran through the site and stabilized the slopes of the 15-acre pit.
It removed fly ash from the brook, wetlands and part of Wenham Lake and hauled it back to the Vitale site, where it was compacted and covered with fabric, gravel and loam. Grass was planted, and a storage building with restrooms was built.
The company then restored 16 acres of wetlands that had been damaged by the fly ash, installing more than 52,000 plants and wildlife habitat features, such as basking logs and boulder piles.
The work protected the public's drinking water from possible contamination, said Schlichtmann, and also gave Beverly its first new playing fields in years.
Schlichtmann credited the late Dominic Manzoli of Beverly with being the first to call attention to the problem. After many early battles, the various forces finally came together and devised a solution, Schlichtmann said.