Why he is the most powerful person
in our city government?
Under four mayors Wayne Feiden has steadily amassed power. I remember Wayne Feiden when he was young, just out of college, I think. Not the city planner, but an ambitious assistant to our planner Larry Smith. Some well-connected people wanted to get rid of Larry, and they did it, in a very disgraceful manner. Over the years he has facilitated many projects, ie made projects possible for the well-connected and wealthy people in our community. Maybe if you are going to planning school somewhere, you should study his career and the decisions he has made and how he implemented them. He brings in the honey. He kept projects here that might have gone elsewhere. The new medical towers down by the wetlands. The landing for the rowing club, the 48 inch line for the fairgrounds group, the Smith College zoning deal that cleared the way for the Science building.
Some people get trampled on.
This is the first story I ever did about Wayne Feiden. The picture is of the old fire station as it looks today.
Murphy* of V-Mag** sent me out about a month ago to work on a story that went supernova in the Gazette for a few days in October of 2000. Just flared up and died. OLD DUMP RAISES NEW QUESTIONS said the headline. The front-page story by Judith Cameron told the story of how Barry Elbaum, a small contractor from Montague, got caught between the city and the State DEP when he reported toxic waste on his land in the Baystate neighborhood of Northampton. The city, it turns out, had never reported the dump to the DEP despite an old l989 city-sponsored study of the land. “The city needs to explain why it did not notify the public…” the editorial writer fulminated on October 9th “and why it sat on the information for 11 years.” And then the story vanished from view.
So I went out to ask Mayor Higgins and her people some questions about this affair, and dug in the files at Planning, going out into the hall to read the parcel file. It looked as if it had been tidied up. Reports usually have cover letters attached. They’ll say, “Hi John it was great to talk to you the other day, and thanks for your business and here’s the report and let us know anytime you have more business to give us.” But the 1989 report by Goldberg Ziono Associates (GZA) that documented the hazardous waste problem off Riverside Drive had no cover letter on it. It looked like it had been pulled off. Ditto for an earlier GZA report evidently done for the Cutlery Associates. In there, as early as l985, there was an indication of trouble.
“The river bank along the western property boundary was walked by the GZA engineer. Large areas of dumped debris were observed along the bank. The debris appeared to consist predominately of furnace slag.”
It looked to me as if someone didn’t want documentary proof lying around that would prove that so and so had been notified. Property owners are responsible for the costs to clean up a site under the Superfund law, and failure to notify the State is a felony.
A long time ago when he was working and living in Northampton, Barry Elbaum bought this cute little abandoned firehouse in the Baystate neighborhood with an eye toward eventually fixing it up and living in it himself. The firehouse is a throwback to the last century, when Bay State life centered around the two cutleries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Bay State was a gritty rustic village all to itself, tucked into a bend of the Mill River about three miles upstream from Paradise Pond, a working neighborhood of small houses spread over the east face of Baker’s Hill. Not only did it have its own firehouse, but a church, elementary school, and factories. Up until the early l980s the cutleries were the big industries there: Northampton Cutlery and Clement Manufacturing. When the Cutlery’s big blowers came up to speed, Bay State was working, when they shut down, Bay State rested. The little Victorian firehouse was built on Cutlery land.
Most of the old Northampton factories operated in another age when the barrels went out back. Windows that opened on the river were a good place to get rid of bad parts when the foreman wasn’t looking. They were old-fashioned male-dominated institutions where production and product perfection were the only Gods. Solvents flowed in great rivers, guys staggered around with wheelbarrows full of oil and shavings, and the buildings and floors were slick with the stuff. We smelled so bad from the kerosene that at the end of eight hours the only place we could feel comfortable drinking together was right across the street, a dark little rundown bar that over the years has been known as the “End of the Line” and “The Bucket of Blood”. Today, it has gone slightly upscale as the Office, a nice dark place to drink in one of the remodeled cutlery buildings.
In 1981, Harvey Finison, the last president of Northampton Cutlery, produced a statement for the city saying that all its wastes were non-hazardous. Well maybe, and then maybe not. The slag that came out of their foundry lies under a lot of Northampton driveways. Sometimes private enterprise is just a bigger version of the homeowner wandering around his back yard with a quart of dirty paint thinner wondering what to do with it. Pour it in an inconspicuous corner in back of the garage? Up until the sixties people didn’t know about the hazards of dumping old chemicals and other waste. In the late summer of l998, the owner of Valley Home Improvement approached Barry Elbaum and asked him if he would rent or sell the building to him.
“After some negotiation, we had a verbal agreement to sell the building,” said Barry. “I’ve grown used to people calling me about the building, and most of the time I would tell them to forget about it. They would want to live there and they couldn’t live there because of the zoning. Part of the lot was zoned for general industry. A few weeks later, I was on the road to Norwalk Connecticut, and I get a call on my cell phone from my potential buyer. He had found this GZA report up at city hall and there was a problem with the adjoining land. There was hazardous waste there. I must have turned white.”
That was just the start of his troubles. The guy faxed him the report of Goldberg-Zoino Associates of Newton (GZA). The report had its cover letter then, and it was addressed to Wayne Feiden at city hall and told him that hazardous materials and oil were present in the soil at the site. The land he was talking about was the six acres that adjoined his land to the west, a long narrow piece of land that ran down toward Manes Field. GZA had interviewed people on the history of the land, checked with city agencies for evidence of dumping on the site, and hired a backhoe to dig 11 test holes in a dump they found in the old raceway. They found evidence of old dumping of household trash by area residents, pieces of unfinished cutlery, and reportable levels of toxic waste. The two test holes closest to Elbaum’s land were chosen for additional testing because of a foul smell and the presence of metal waste. The well TP-1 was only fifteen feet from his property line, and had high levels of lead and chromium. Lead was found at 62 mg/l; the threshold for hazardous waste is 5 mg/l.
“At that time I didn’t know what was going on,” said Barry. “I knew this business could kill me financially. I was up night after night worrying about it. But I had these two kids that had come to me in the summer of l999, and they wanted to buy the building and land too, even with all the problems. They were so persistent and energetic. They loved the building and wanted it, even after I told them of the troubles with contamination. It’s a wonderful building, lets face it. The bell is gone, but the pulleys are still there. There’s the tower, the 12-foot ceilings on the first floor. We signed a purchase and sales agreement, and they paid for a study of the problem. I got them a good environmental lawyer.”
I read the purchase and sales agreement he signed with them and it is a diamond in a world of legalese and gobbledygook. It tells the couple that if there are serious environmental problems with the land, they can get out of the agreement and that Barry will pay for the study. The first report was thick, but mostly a survey of the existing information. It said there was a problem with his land. So Barry decides to press on. He doesn’t tell his clients to get lost and doesn’t bury the report. He paid for the second study, which involved extensive trenching and laboratory testing. It said to call the DEP ASAP. There was nasty stuff there, and there had to be a cleanup. But the results gave him things to do and a sense that there were limits to this problem. It was not Love Canal. The trenching opened the land down to the bottom of the old power canal, which was only about five feet deep. Lining the bottom were old broken bottles and cans. The pollution stopped there. Borings in the earth under the canal, or to either side of it, came up clean.
Northampton Cutlery had let their neighbors dump their garbage on their land. The dump started when the power canal’s inlet from the river was blocked, and it went dry. As the canal filled in, they dumped closer and closer to the firehouse and the factory complex. The bottles deep in the woods were old; the stuff in his backyard was out of the fifties and sixties. Everything he saw come up in the bucket looked like household trash from local households. The backhoe operator would come up with a choice smelly bit of old trash, and it would go into a bottle, and become a “hot-spot”. Elbaum says that the way it looks now, the site will not be inordinately expensive to clean up, that they will most likely keep the contaminated material on site, and bring in equipment to dig it up and mix it with a sealer that sets up like concrete, and then pours it back in the hole.
Elbaum reported the results to the current owners of the Cutlery site on February 13, 2000 and the DEP on February 14th. Then the trouble really started. Site visits, tests, interviews. For a while the DEP wanted him to test the river water for contamination.
Harvey Finison’s owner of Northampton Cutlery, was trying, against the odds, to keep a nineteenth century operation going into the latter part of the twentieth. $100,000.00 in tax liens had been filed against him by 1984, when he sold the buildings to a group of people, some of whom were major figures in the Heritage Bankdebacle. The two lead people in the Northampton Cutlery Associates were Art Pichette and a Northampton lawyer, Allan Verson. Also in the partnership were architect Ed Gillen and some other Amherst architects who were associated with Gillen. On April 2nd, l984, the Cutlery Associates bought the property from Harvey Finison for $200,000, and five months later they sold Barry Elbaum a small parcel of land and the old firehouse for $35,000. Then they fixed the place up.
It was a show funded by Heritage Bank, which meant it had its problems. Its principals were friends of since-jailed loan officer Mike Smith, and it was done in the heat and the excitement of the “bubble”, the era when Northampton land values were spiking and Heritage had millions to give away. Like most Heritage projects, it had a bank insider involved. Art Pichette was a borrower and working for the bank as a consultant. As the bank’s development consultant, Pichette got the bank involved in an inordinate amount of no-win situations. In l987 Verson, Pichette and the others got $1 million from Heritage in an INTEREST-ONLY loan for the Cutlery project. I put it in upper case because big banks are supposed to ask people to pay down their principal on loans secured by real estate. I do, you do, it’s the American way. But not Mike Smith’s way, who gave his friends and their projects training wheels. Later he would come back to them for little favors. Help me buy a condo, help me get my auto business started. Verson gave him a good price on a condo on King Street, so Mike could have an office for his nonexistent consulting business.
In l989, with Mike Smith fired, the federal auditors looking at the books, and the people in the Heritage accounting department gasping for air, the honeymoon was over. The Cutlery people were under a lot of pressure to come up with money for the bank, and renegotiate their loans. They needed cash. In this l988/89 period someone came up with the idea of a city-owned Greenbelt along Mill River. As part of this project, it was proposed that the city buy the undeveloped long thin parcel of land that the Associates owned for $35,000.
The city, according to Wayne Feiden, had a plan to make the area a conservation area with walking trails and put a duplex of affordable housing next to the firehouse, which was a nice idea. The city asked the Valley Land Fund, a state-associated environmental group, to acquire the parcel of land for conservation purposes. But before they went ahead, the city commissioned a study of the site by Goldberg-Zoino and Associates. When the report came in, Wayne said there was “internal discussion” as to whether the city would notify the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). They decided that they had no legal obligation to do anything more than notify the landowner. On November 6 2000, Wayne Feiden provided the state and the city with a legal affidavit on his role in this affair. “Because I was aware that Alan Verson was an attorney “said Wayne, “ I assumed that he would bring the matter to the attention of the appropriate authorities.”
This affair didn’t just go in the file and get forgotten about. The file was altered. More than nine years later Wayne and the city had the opportunity to revisit this matter when they were involved in new negotiations with Verson over this parcel. A small piece adjoining Manes field that tests indicated was uncontaminated was split off and sold to the city for a dollar. Which gets to a motive for the city’s remaining silent.
Did Wayne give Verson a copy of the report in l989? He thinks he did get a copy, but couldn’t swear to it. I think that some kind of unholy deal was made between Wayne and Verson. Verson wouldn’t compel the city to purchase the land, as he might have done under the “Option to Purchase” agreement that the city signed, and in return the report would be kept a secret. The report went in the file and gathered dust, like an old piece of unexploded ordnance. It went off in Barry Elbaum’s face ten years later.
The Greenbelt was a beautiful idea, but Verson’s motives have to be suspect. He must have known about the l985 GZA report. The Cutlery site is not Love Canal, but if you walk along the bank of the river, you get the feeling that the grade is so steep because there has been a lot of uninhibited bulldozing over the years. Pieces of old boilers, walls and other equipment poke through the surface. They might have done a lot of filling and grading using their furnace slag. DEP staff told me that new sampling wells are turning up quite a bit of cutlery waste. When you have high ground water and leachable slag with a lot of heavy metals in it, you might get a plume of ground water contamination. *
In any case, DEP is not happy with us down in Springfield. The DEP letter sent the city was not friendly. The press was excluded from the meeting the State had with the City, probably to spare the principals any embarrassment. Sure, the City had no legal obligation to tell them about the dump in l989 but the moral obligation was there. All that was done by the city when it found it had hazardous waste on the site was that one phone call was made to one man. There was no effort to establish a paper trail. There was no letters to the partners in the Cutlery Associates explaining what the law was and what their obligation was under state law. No one told Barry Elbaum anything, even though there was a so-called “hot-spot” only fifteen feet from his property line. The cutlery owners did not assume responsibility, the city did not assume responsibility, but one man did, and it is to his credit. ***
There is the level playing field, which old-fashioned “Goo-Goos” like me are always looking for. Good government, evenhanded treatment of everybody. I have the feeling that if a similar discovery had been made in my back yard or at the Northampton airport, the DEP would have heard about it before the sun went down. God knows the Planning and Development people have called down the dogs on poor Dick Guisto and the airport enough over the years. Planning and Development is a law enforcement agency, it ought to evenhandedly enforce land laws.
The guys that owned the Cutlery were well connected and had powerful friends in city and county government. Pichette was partners with Pat Goggins, who was then County Commissioner and headed the city’s affordable housing group starting in l990.
The new director of the DEP has called for” new partnerships” between area agencies and the DEP so adversarial relationships do not develop. Maybe one of those new partnerships ought to be developed with Northampton. Is there a city policy on reporting hazardous waste? We do not seem to have one. An essential part of such a policy would be making key people, like city planners, engineers and board of health people, into so-called “mandatory reporters.” If they find hazardous waste, they would be obligated by city ordinances to report it.
*A slightly longer version off this article was published by VMAG in December of the year 2000
**Murphy was the editor. VMAG went out of business several months later
later. Maybe this story helped .
*** I talked with Elbaum the other night (in the year 2,000). It cost him more than $35,000 to satisfy the DEP.
On February 1, 2000 Verson sold the city 1.7 acres upstream from the Cutlery, an area that was not contaminated. Plan Book 185-231, plan done for the city in August of 1999 Today the old firehouse has been remodeled and expanded and belongs to Valley Home Improvement.
Next: A short story about factory life, inspired by a year working in Bay State.