By Jesse Roman
PEABODY — A group of neighbors has banded together to fight the existence and proposed expansion of a school bus parking lot that sprang up last summer at 60 Pulaski St.
The buses are noisy, the exhaust is harmful to the health of residents on the street, and parking the buses in the polluted lot poses a health risk to city students who ride them, the neighbors said.
"Everyone on Pulaski Street has chronic bronchitis, asthma and coughs since this bus lot went in" last August, said Kathy Wells, one of the neighbors railing against the lot. "Nobody was given notice (that the lot was being built), nobody knew what was happening; it just happened."
"I never had a case of bronchitis until I moved to Pulaski Street," resident Darryl Ann McCarthy said at a Peabody Conservation Commission meeting in December. "My neighbor suffers from chronic coughing. Until we all sat down and spoke, I didn't realize it had such a strong effect, but it does."
The diesel exhaust from the buses, which neighbors say idle for more than an hour some weekday mornings, is so bad that one neighbor "opened his window next to his carbon monoxide detector, and it went off," McCarthy said.
Leather chemical distributor Tannin Corp., through its subsidiary 60 Pulaski Street LLC, purchased the abandoned 6-acre site at 60 Pulaski St. in 2005 for $20,000 and built a gravel parking lot on it last summer. Shortly after, the company contracted with Salter Transportation LLC to allow it to use the lot to store school buses, said Jack Keilty, a Peabody attorney representing 60 Pulaski Street LLC. Salter is the company contracted by the city to transport Peabody public school students.
There are currently 35 buses stored at the property, but 60 Pulaski Street LLC recently filed for a permit to expand the number of spaces to 107 — 59 for buses and 49 for cars, said Brendan Callahan, the senior planner for the city of Peabody.
Keilty said the neighbors' complaints about the exhaust problem are overstated.
"The neighbors have said the buses start at 5 a.m., but the manager at the site says nobody is even being paid at that time," Keilty said Thursday.
Drivers don't start up the buses until 5:45 a.m., and that's only if it's particularly cold, and the buses, which "are low-sulfur, use biodiesel fuel and are state-of-the-art in terms of being green," don't idle more than 15 minutes, Keilty said.
Toxic waste dump
The lot in question was once the site of a former chemical storage and distribution facility, which burned down about 15 years ago. Most of the building, along with asbestos and various chemicals, including hexavalent chromium, was buried at the site after the fire. The resulting pollution compelled the federal government to give the site federal Superfund designation — a distinction reserved only for the nation's worst environmental contamination areas. Over the years, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent about $450,000 cleaning up the site, and there are liens on the property from both the federal government and the state.
Engineers hired by Tannin said there is "no risk that the chromium will migrate from the groundwater to the buses and pose a risk to students who would later occupy the buses," said a letter from David MacDonald, vice president of Woodard & Curran, an engineering firm.
Still, neighbors and Ward 3 City Councilor Rico Mello aren't convinced.
"I think it doesn't belong there; it's not where we should be parking our school buses," Mello said. "I'm not saying anything will happen, I just don't know."
"I would like people to know their kids are riding on buses parked on toxic waste," Wells said. "I think the city should have been more careful about this."
In addition, because the former owners of 60 Pulaski St. did not pay taxes, Tannin owes $376,000 in back taxes on the property, according to Peabody Treasurer Richard Reeves. The company is currently paying taxes, including an additional $500 per month against the back taxes, Reeves said.
In order to expand the lot, 60 Pulaski Street LLC needs an Order of Conditions from the Peabody Conservation Commission, because the lot would extend inside the legal buffer zone of a wetland area.
The Pulaski Street neighbors were dealt a blow to their cause last week when Peabody Building Inspector Kevin Goggin ruled that the bus lot, which is in the IL zoning district, is an allowed use.
"By right, the outdoor storage of undamaged and operable automobiles" is permitted in the district, Goggin said in a letter written to Wells. "The use of the word 'automobiles' has been interpreted by the Zoning Enforcement Officer to be a comprehensive term which embraces all motor vehicles."
Mello, Wells and the rest of the group vehemently disagree with Goggin's interpretation.
"We will absolutely appeal" to the Zoning Board of Appeals, Wells said.
The zoning regulations, according to Mello, clearly define "automobiles" as cars exclusively. Buses are considered vehicles, he said.
"Having sat as chairman for the Industrial Zoning Committee for two years, there is a clear distinction in my mind between automobiles and vehicles," Mello said at a Conservation Commission meeting. "It clearly states in the zoning that operable vehicles cannot be stored in IL. There may be other board members that don't agree with me or, should I say, other departments."
The neighbors say they are frustrated at the city's lack of response to their concerns, Wells said.
"We've been in front of the Conservation Commission twice, the Board of Health, the mayor's office, the tax office — we've been every place and nobody has been willing or able to help us," Wells said. "There's more going on than meets the eye."
The commission will resume discussing the matter at its scheduled meeting tonight.