State Officials Address Lead Issues at Tobin Bridge

A packed house heard the latest on plans for the Tobin Bridge and efforts to contain falling lead paint chips from the structure from some high ranking state officials at GreenRoots members meeting late last week.

New state transportation secretary Gina Fiandaca and state highway administrator Jonathan Gulliver outlined both the short- and long-term response to the discovery of numerous lead paint chips from the bridge found in Chelsea last month. In addition, the state officials announced plans for a pilot program encompassing the overall environmental health of Chelsea.

State Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca.

GreenRoots Executive Director Roseann Bongiovanni thanked the state officials for quickly responding to the latest environmental crisis in Chelsea, but also noted that the city has undergone a heavy burden in the past several years.

“I want to start off by saying this is incredibly concerning,” said Bongiovanni. “In 2020, the DOT had a lapse in construction that resulted in dust throughout a very impacted neighborhood at the peak of Covid. It was residents who responded and were concerned and ultimately outraged and called the state.”

About a year ago, Bongiovanni said there was uncovered asbestos that was dumped near a Chelsea public housing development at the hands of the DOT.

“Now we find out that there is lead paint literally raining down on the residents of Chelsea,” she said. “As a lifelong resident of Chelsea, I have seen the bridge be painted literally a million times, and I thought we were resolving concerns with lead.”

Bongiovanni noted that GreenRoots and residents have also spent the past several years battling a proposed electric substation in East Boston.

“It just seems like there continues to be the same assault on environmental justice communities day after day after day, and the state has the power to stop these assaults,” she said. “This is a new administration, and we need to see some action under the new administration, we don’t need to see unkept promises.”

Bongiovanni noted that long-time Chelsea resident Tony Hernandez both informed GreenRoots and the city about the dust in 2020 and raised concerns about the lead paint chips falling from the Tobin. She added that his leadership got GreenRoots and the city involved very quickly.

The city acted quickly to test the paint chips, Bongiovanni said, and Fiandaca, Gulliver and the state also stepped in quickly to tour the site and come up with an action plan.

“I walked the site with Tony, and I just couldn’t believe the paint chips were three and four blocks into all of our neighborhoods, to the playgrounds, to the daycare centers,” said Bogiovanni.

Fiandaca reiterated that Hernandez deserved the credit for bringing the lead paint issue to the attention of the city and the state.

“No community should live with what you are dealing with here,” she said. “Excuses are not what we are here to offer, we are here to minimize your concerns … Your concerns matter, this community matters, and we’re here to take responsibility for it.”

Gulliver laid out some of the details of the clean up, as well as the issues with lead paint in Chelsea and beyond.

“The question has been asked, why is lead paint even there in the first place, why are we even talking about lead paint on the bridge,” Gulliver said. “Lead is one of those substances that was very commonly used in paint for decades.”

While lead paint was banned for residential use in 1977, it was not banned for commercial use until 1992.

The standard practice for dealing with existing lead paint has also changed over the past two decades, Gulliver said.

“When it was first banned, the approach was you paint over it and you don’t do anything else, you leave it in place,” said Gulliver. “What we are seeing is that this is not a practice that has stood the test of time. What you are seeing on the Tobin Bridge is exactly what happens when you paint over lead paint, it starts to crack and starts to chip off.”

The past winter, which saw an excess of temperatures going from freezing to above and back again created conditions that saw an excess of paint chipping off bridges across the state, he added.

Now, when the highway department deals with lead paint on bridges, Gulliver said the bridges are tented with a containment unit and everything is vacuum sealed as the lead paint is removed.

“This is a problem that is not unique to the Tobin Bridge … about one in three bridges have some lead paint on them,” said Gulliver.

Gulliver said that testing showed that there was no lead discovered in the first six inches of soil around the bridge, and also that there was no impact on the drinking water supply.

“We’ve been out there working with our crews to vacuum up the lead chips to ensure that it doesn’t spread further,” said Gulliver, adding that all the lead paint chips were being removed from Chelsea and that crews were close to completing the initial clean up. He added that crews will remain in place for any spot clean up of additional lead paint chips that fall from the Tobin.

Longer term, Gulliver said the state highway department is putting a $100 million project out to bid to completely clean and repaint the portion of the Tobin Bridge over the Chelsea neighborhoods.

“We’ve done the Chelsea Curves and the first leg of the Tobin Bridge approaching this section over the last couple of years,” said Gulliver. “This is the last project in a series of projects, and it is the biggest one at $100 million.”

The project will include putting up shielding and a containment system, making structural repairs, and cleaning up and removing all lead paint, and then repainting the bridge with acrylic paint.

The state is also working on the details of mitigation efforts for residents near the bridge work site that will include a grant program for items such as air conditioners, air purifiers, and white noise machines.

“Finally, something we are pretty excited about, the (United States) EPA is putting together a pilot program, the first in the nation,” said Gulliver. “They are going to be working with state agencies, the city, and with advocates to develop a pilot program to look at the cumulative impacts of environmental issues on Chelsea.”

Gulliver noted that Chelsea is one of the most densely populated cities in New England and has a history of heavy industry producing contaminants.

“Our hope is that this is going to lead to a series of federal grants that we can now do some targeted clean up projects in Chelsea,” said Gulliver.

Bongiovanni questioned Gulliver as to why the state didn’t commence clean up of the Tobin Bridge area sooner if it was aware of increased paint chip problems.

Gulliver replied that MassHighway was out in the area in the week before it was notified of the issues and had noticed some issues and was beginning to file work orders to address it.

Fiandaca added that the $100 million Tobin Bridge project has been on the state’s schedule.

“As soon as we learned how bad the situation out here was, we worked to get a team out to see it so we could get a handle on the  scope of the work,” she said. “We wanted to make sure we were able to accelerate the project and get to the real repairs up there.”

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