DANVERS — Residents who live near Brown Pond and at the Winding Brook Village Condominiums in the area of Purchase and Ash streets are being asked by state environmental officials for permission to go on their properties to see how widespread arsenic contamination might be from a former tannery that was torn down a century ago.

About a dozen residents turned out for a meeting in the Gordon Room at the Danvers Library Thursday night, a meeting attended by Town Manager Steve Bartha, Town Engineer Richard Rodgers and Karis North, of the firm Murphy Hess Toomey and Lehane LLP, which provides the town's legal counsel.

State environmental and health officials were also there with further information about what the next steps are to address elevated levels of arsenic found in the soil at Brown Pond.

Officials said they want to do further testing, after an initial round turned up arsenic in the soil to the north and east of the pond. The pond property, which is owned by the town, is fenced off, but officials were wondering if the contamination has extended off-site. They were asking residents that night for permission to take samples and offering the necessary forms for anyone who wished to do so.

The plan is to test properties closest to Brown Pond, and if arsenic is found on them, to work outwards. If any arsenic is found, under state law, the respective property owner would be responsible for remediation.

Some residents were left wondering what's next.

"It's hard to swallow," said Polly LeBlanc, who lives with her husband Ron, at the 17-unit condo development. She worried about a possible financial hit should contamination be found on the condo association's property. Her husband noted he is one of the trustees of the condo association. 

Paul DiFranco, who lives on Purchase Street, said he was concerned about continued contamination, and Tim Sullivan, whose property abuts Brown Pond at 71 Purchase St., said he gardened for years at his house.

"I would imagine," Sullivan said about allowing officials to sample soil on his property, "I don't think there is a downside."

State environmental analyst Christopher Pyott said the state would need permission to do sampling on an undeveloped, rear portion of the condominiums to see what the extent of the contamination is in the area.

That rear area, which is across Ash Street from the pond, is where a tannery once stood around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pyott said. Arsenic was used to remove hair from animal hides, and chromium was used in the coloring process, he explained.

"We're here because we want to help you and do the right thing," Pyott said. He urged the condo association to hire an environmental lawyer to get answers to any questions residents might have.

The contamination was discovered at the pond in 2011, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while looking for background levels of contamination in relation to what was found at the former Creese and Cook tannery sites on Clinton Avenue and Water Street, turned up elevated levels of arsenic at Brown Pond. 

Testing showed arsenic levels at more than 10 times the safety standard for long-term exposure, according to Pyott. Contamination was limited to a depth of 1 to 2 feet in the soil.

Officials investigated the history of the site, and found there was no tannery operation at Brown Pond, however, it was used as a source of water for Creese and Cook on Clinton Avenue. The town eventually acquired the pond in 1986.

Pyott said that means there had to be another possible source, and further research found the old Bernard Friedman and Company and American Hide and Leather site was located upstream of Brown Pond on what is now property belonging to the condos. 

A brook runs under Ash Street. At some point, the pond was dredged out, and Pyott said that is how the arsenic contamination might have spread there.

Once the arsenic was discovered, the town hired a licensed site professional to investigate the extent of the contamination on its property, for which it's responsible. Last year, the town submitted an extensive report to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Pyott said the plan, if the state gets permission, is to also test for chromium at the old tannery site, although that was not found at the pond.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.

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