BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — Over the objections of two local environmental groups, the state’s top environmental official has tentatively ruled that the first phase of the Brimbal Avenue project can proceed without a new study.
Richard Sullivan, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said in an Aug. 2 decision that the project will not result in “significant environmental impacts.”
Sullivan said that requiring an environmental impact report would cause the city of Beverly “undue hardship” because it would likely lose $5 million in state funding if the project does not start by the end of the year.
But the Norwood Pond Coalition and the Ipswich River Watershed Association say the project could have major environmental impacts, including releasing hazardous wastes from a former landfill, damaging wetlands, and increasing noise from construction and traffic.
In a letter to Sullivan, an attorney for the Norwood Pond group said Sullivan should not allow the city and state to hold the environmental study “hostage to the vagaries of alleged transportation funding.”
“(T)heir lack of planning should not mean that the Secretary should waive the responsibility of requiring that the mandatory (environmental study) be completed for the entire project,” attorney Margaret Stolfa wrote.
The first phase of the project involves moving the connector road between Sohier Road and Brimbal Avenue about 500 feet to give cars more room to “stack up” during peak traffic hours and prevent them from backing up onto Route 128 at Exit 19. That move will open up land for the development of a $20 million shopping plaza where the connector road now lies.
Plans also call for the construction of “roundabouts” at the connector road intersections with Brimbal Avenue and Sohier Road and traffic lights at the corner of Herrick Street Extension and Brimbal Avenue, as well as new sidewalks and bicycle lanes.
State law requires that the city and state transportation officials prepare an environmental impact report before the project begins. But they may also request a waiver from the state’s environmental secretary if doing the study would cause “undue hardship” and “not serve to avoid or minimize damage to the environment.”
Mayor Bill Scanlon said compiling an environmental impact report would have delayed the project “significantly.” The project, he said, will not harm the environment.
“The important thing is that the state feels that way,” he said.
The environmental waiver applies only to the first phase of the Brimbal Avenue project, which will be done by the city. The second and much larger phase, which has yet to be funded, would be done by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and would require an environmental impact report.
The second phase involves building a bridge over Route 128 between Brimbal Avenue and Dunham Road. Scanlon said the changes, in addition to improving traffic flow and safety, will open up land to development and create as many as 7,500 jobs.
Scanlon is not running for re-election and will leave office at the end of the year. He has said that he would offer his services to the next mayor to help complete the Brimbal Avenue project.
In his ruling in favor of an environmental waiver for Phase One, Sullivan said the city and state have already proposed measures to avoid or minimize environmental impacts. Any other issues can be resolved during the state and local permitting process, he said.
But in her letter to the state, the Norwood Pond Coalition’s attorney said the project involves building on part of an old landfill on Brimbal Avenue that contains hazardous waste such as lead and PCBs. Digging up the landfill could result in “odors, potential leaching to groundwater and development of sink holes after recapping,” the letter said.
The letter also said the city fails to fully address concerns about noise created by an increase in traffic that will result from new development, including the planned shopping plaza.
Member Pam Kampersal said the Norwood Pond Coalition formed 10 years ago when the city first announced plans to build the Route 128 overpass.
Kampersal said Sullivan has failed to take into consideration the full environmental, traffic and noise implications of the project, including the shopping plaza. She wrote a letter to him this week asking him to reconsider his decision to grant a waiver.
“We think a lot of people don’t know how big that shopping center is going to be,” Kampersal said. “And to even think about putting it on a landfill. Who knows what was dumped there? That could be a big problem.”
The Ipswich River Watershed Association also wrote a letter opposing the environmental waiver. Executive Director Wayne Castonguay called the waiver request “imprudent and unjustified” and criticized what he called “casual planning” on the part of the city and state for dealing with the project’s environmental impacts.
Castonguay said officials should not be allowed to separate the two phases of the Brimbal Avenue project when it comes to environmental concerns. He said the entire project should “be subject to rigorous environmental review on a collective basis and not piecemeal as proposed.”
Sullivan said in his ruling that he supports the waiver request but will not make his final decision until after the public comment period ends today.
Before construction can begin, the city and state still need approval from the state Legislature for a land swap between the state and CEA Group, the company that would build the $20 million shopping plaza. CEA Group would give the state land to build the connector road while the state would give the company land to build the shopping plaza.
Scanlon said he hopes to get legislative approval in September, and that a construction contract could be awarded before the end of the year.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.