BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — The site of the former Creese and Cook Tannery has just joined a list of the nation’s most complex and troubled hazardous waste sites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday added the 17-acre site to its National Priorities List of Superfund sites, according to a statement from the agency.
The designation makes the contaminated former tannery land eligible for federal money and technical know-how for a study and cleanup. The site, an abandoned parcel with several owners, encompasses an area on both sides of the Crane River from Route 128 south along Clinton Avenue to Water Street in Danversport.
“The total cost for the cleanup will be considerable — well beyond the means of the neighbors or the town to handle on our own,” said Town Manager Wayne Marquis in an email statement. “EPA and (the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection) have done a super job in coordinating all aspects of this two-year-long process, which will ensure a timely cleanup.”
The exact extent of the contamination is not known. According to the statement, “EPA will investigate the full extent of the contamination before starting significant cleanup at the site. Therefore, it may take several years before significant EPA cleanup funding is required for these sites.”
“It’s good news for the town and the residents of the Crane River Condos,” said Director of Public Health Peter Mirandi, referring to the 28-unit condominium complex at 33 Water St. where high levels of arsenic have been found.
The condo site was once home to a leather tanning and finishing facility on the east bank of the river, something the state was not aware of until relatively recently. Much of the effort in the past had been focused on property at 55 Clinton Ave., where there was an extensive tannery operation on the west bank of the river.
Last year, the EPA stepped in and removed about 18 inches of topsoil at the back of the northernmost building in the condo complex, which was developed in the mid-1980s.
When the study and cleanup do take place, DEP spokesman Ed Coletta said the condos will be the focus.
“This is the first place to be fully assessed and fully cleaned up,” Coletta said.
The Creese and Cook site is actually made up of three parcels and a portion of a fourth, a railroad right-of-way, on opposite banks of the Crane River, according to the EPA. All four parcels were owned by the leather tanning and finishing operation from 1903 to 1981, when Creese and Cook went bankrupt.
“Solid wastes from the manufacturing process were disposed of in two onsite landfills,” according to the EPA in describing the extent of the contamination. “Liquid effluent was discharged directly to the Crane River and later to sewers, while sludge waste was deposited in an onsite lagoon system.”
Over time, the property was subdivided, and the parcel on Water Street was redeveloped into the Crane River Condos. The state referred the Creese and Cook site to the EPA because of the risk to human health and the environment, and there was no money available to continue the work.
The Superfund designation is an especially important one for condo owners, the DEP’s Coletta said.
“Under the state cleanup program, the past owner and the current owner are responsible for the cleanup,” Coletta said. But the Superfund listing deems condo residents “innocent land owners,” allowing for federal money to be used for investigation and cleanup.
“The condominium owners will be held harmless,” Coletta said, “and the property will be cleaned up.”
As for 12.6 acres at 55 Clinton Ave., town records list the owner as trustee Nicholas J. Decoulos, a Peabody attorney, who purchased the property for $1.3 million in 2003. In 2009, the Attorney General’s office sued Decoulos in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston for refusing to clean up the site, which borders a commercial plaza that includes Hollywood Hits and BJ’s Wholesale Club, and for failing to put up fencing and warning signs to keep people out. Attempts to redevelop housing on the Clinton Avenue site in 2004 led to the large tannery building being demolished and the site investigated for contamination, including high levels of arsenic and dioxin, according to past news reports.
A woman who answered Decoulos’ phone yesterday identified herself as his wife and said her husband was in the hospital and would not be able to comment.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.