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Paul Caron Lands on Park Place

Land soars in value when a company in a sensitive business wants to acquire it.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012
Stephanie Kraft Photo
Dimmock Pond: No longer a pristine fishing place

How much is six-tenths of an acre of a city park in Springfield worth?

Over the last two years, one particular tract of that size has been worth quite a lot to former state representative Paul Caron, now a lobbyist.

According to state records, Caron's firm, Paul E. Caron Associates, has made $120,000 representing UniFirst/UniTech, the uniform laundering company on Parker Street in Indian Orchard, as it tried to acquire six-tenths of an acre of Hubbard Park from the city of Springfield.

The famous revolving door between legislators and lobbyists doesn't exist only in Washington; K Street has its extensions in cities large and small. In this case, Caron's services were needed because Springfield couldn't sell the land to UniFirst/Unitech without permission from the U.S. National Park Service. That's because land the Park Service has put money into can't be transferred for another use without the NPS's permission, and Hubbard Park had been improved through the years with federal funding, Patrick Sullivan of the Springfield Parks Department told the Advocate.

So Caron had to go to Washington and do a little hobnobbing with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Springfield's man in Congress, to get some help in shaking the Hubbard Park parcel loose from the National Park Service.

Couldn't a simple phone call have done it? Apparently not. It took tens of thousands of dollars, paid by UniFirst from its headquarters in Wilmington, Mass. over two years, to help cement the deal. As they say, nice work if you can get it.

Caron's take is only a fraction of what the land was apparently worth to UniFirst/UniTech, which paid the city $280,000 for it. The land lies between the company's plant at 295 Parker Street and Dimmock Pond, a lovely small lake that used to be a good place to fish for largemouth bass and brown bullheads before it was as contaminated as it is today by runoff from nearby industries. It will take some doing to expand the company's parking area, since there's a declivity of a few feet between its fence and the newly acquired strip of park. But UniFirst/UniTech Health Physics and Engineering Manager Michael Fuller told the Advocate that there would be a retaining wall "with a park-like look" to accommodate the split-level terrain.

So this slice of Hubbard Park will have cost UniFirst/UniTech upwards of $400,000, taking the payment to the city together with what the company paid Caron.

Some $80,000 of UniFirst/UniTech's $280,000 payment to the city for the Hubbard Park parcel will go for improvements to Plastics Park, a 21-acre tract given the city by Solutia, a spinoff of Monsanto. (When the Advocate asked Caron why the cash-strapped city should give part of the money for the Hubbard Park parcel to improve Plastics Park rather than try to get a wealthy multinational like Solutia to furbish up its former acreage, he replied, "You don't look a gift horse in the mouth.")

In any case, the rest of the money will go for improvements for Hubbard Park. Combined with a spanking new federal grant of $500,000, it will pay for upgrades to the park's basketball and tennis courts, handicapped-accessible paths, a new picnic grove, a new parking lot and other amenities. It's all good news for local people who use the park.

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That's the up side of the city's quietly friendly relationship with UniFirst/UniTech. But is the city paying a price for that relationship? Who is the company whose parking lot expansion was worth such handsome payments to Caron?

It's a company Caron has known for a long time, because he was Indian Orchard's representative to the Massachusetts Legislature from 1983 to 2003. It's a company that's had a friendly relationship to the U.S. government for a long time, because since 1953 UniFirst, in Springfield and at branches in other parts of the country, has been in the business of laundering uniforms, gloves and other washable items used by nuclear installations: by power plants, military installations and laboratories, including Los Alamos, Brookhaven and other national labs.

UniFirst and its nuclear subsidiary, formerly known as Interstate Nuclear Services and now as UniTech, has seldom been reported on in the Springfield newspaper through the years, and seldom challenged by the Indian Orchard Neighborhood Council about such matters as radioactive lint blowing around its parking lot and radioactive water slurping up from the manhole near by. The plant's location next to and across the street from modest middle-class homes, and near the park and pond, is a textbook example of poor zoning.

UniFirst/UniTech posts no radiation warnings. When the Advocate asked why not, Michael Fuller responded, "There's no signs required and I don't recall any signs on the fence at Vermont Yankee where I used to work, and at a dentist's office there won't be signs there. We don't want to post signs unnecessarily because we don't want to desensitize people."

State Department of Public Health records, however, suggest that the analogy with dentists' offices may be flawed. The state keeps statistics on the amount of low-level radwaste various institutions store and ship. On the list for 2007, the most recent year for which the information was available, UniFirst/UniTech was listed as shipping 2,400 cubic feet—much less than the very large handlers such as Pilgrim nuclear plant owner Entergy, with 29,600, or the Army Corps of Engineers, with 86,770, but more than 10 times as much as, for example, Mass General Hospital, which weighed in with 166.8, or UMass-Amherst, with 107.2. True, UniFirst/UniTech's waste is not very hot; its 2,400 cubic feet generated less than one curie of radioactivity.

The state Department of Public Health says it doesn't compel UniFirst/UniTech to post external radiation warnings because the radioactive uniforms are handled inside the plant. (The DPH has overseen the state's nuclear licensees since 1997, when Massachusetts became an "agreement state" and took over that function from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.) "They do not have to label the outside of the building because they have the proper signs within," DPH Environmental Health Director Suzanne Condon told the Advocate through spokeswoman Jennifer Manley.

But regulations about signage are one thing; a spirit of public service is something else. In 1992, something unusual appeared in the Springfield Republican: a feature-length story about UniFirst and its subsidiary, Interstate Nuclear Services (now UniTech). In the story, reporter Wesley Blixt wrote, "Officials at Interstate Nuclear Services... confirmed that radioactive foam had bubbled up from a manhole less than 20 yards from its city sewer connection.... Corporate health physics manager Michael J. Bovino also confirmed a reporter's finding that radiation readings outside the INS perimeter fence, near a waste-filled truck, were 12 to 15 times normal background radiation levels experienced in everyday life."

One could argue that such readings outside the fence, even if rises in the level of radioactivity there are fleeting, support an argument for marking the place; however, Blixt's article continued, "Bovino said the readings recorded outside the plant did not exceed federal radiation limits, nor had there been an excessive discharge of radioactivity into the Springfield city sewer system."

The manhole, however, contained radioactive strontium 90 and cobalt 60 isotopes, Blixt reported, citing Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.

And in 1996, 180,000 gallons of water from the nuclear laundry overflowed and went into the pond.

A sign that radioactivity above background levels may occasionally be emitted from the UniFirst property occurred more recently. In February, 2010 a radiation meter set to register radioactivity above background levels sounded an alarm in the home of Stacia Falkowski, who has lived in her Parker Street house not far from what is now UniFirst since before the company went into operation. Background radiation is about 14; the meter registered 32.

Falkowski got in touch with the DPH and a few days later Radiation Control Officer John Sumares took readings at the plant, then went to Falkowski's home, where he and Falkowski took readings on her property. Neither at the plant nor at the Falkowski house did Sumares find elevated levels of radioactivity by that time. But both his and Falkowski's devices showed the same readings, which suggests that her readings on the night of the alarm were accurate.

Last fall, as UniFirst and the city were finalizing arrangements for the land transfer, Fuller wrote several Springfield officials, abutters and the Indian Orchard Neighborhood Council a letter about the proposed purchase. Touting the company's readiness to respond to radioactive emergencies, Fuller mentioned in the letter that a "nearby resident" had contacted DPH because of an alarm sounded by a radiation detector, but that DPH had found that the detector had "malfunctioned."

Falkowski protested to him and to the DPH; Sumares emailed to assure her that the DPH had "never informed UniFirst, or Mike Fuller, that your detector had malfunctioned." Later Richard Gallaghar, acting director of the DPH's Radiation Control Program, wrote Falkowski, "...the radiologic measurement device in your home appeared to be functioning as designed. While the MDPH has no authority to require UniFirst to issue a corrected letter to residents, we hope the information contained within this letter is helpful in clarifying the actions of the MPDH."

Not all the environmental issues associated with UniFirst/UniTech are nuclear. In 1988 a report prepared for the city and the state noted, "Concern for Dimmock Pond revolves around illegal dumping events which took place during 1981 by Interstate Uniform Services Corp. (now called UniFirst/Interstate Nuclear Services)... Evidently a dry cleaning solvent sludge which contained naphtha was dumped both on the company property and into a manhole on their property, which discharges directly to Dimmock Pond." According to the report, "relatively high" levels of lead and cadmium were found in the sludge. (Earlier, UniFirst officials had told the state that 35 to 40 gallons of sludge "were dumped when no waste hauler was available.")

UniFirst was given a cleanup permit for that violation in 1994, and remediation went on for years; meanwhile, state records show another spill of petroleum hydrocarbons in 1995. As is noted in a UniFirst SEC filing from last year, UniFirst "continues to address environmental conditions... with respect to sites located in or related to Woburn, Massachusetts, Somerville, Massachusetts, Springfield, Massachusetts, Uvalde, Texas, Stockton, California, three sites related to former operations in Williamstown, Vermont, as well as sites located in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina and Landover, Maryland."

At its Springfield site, there's no doubt UniFirst/UniTech could use more parking space; it's true, as Fuller says, that its large trucks don't have much room to maneuver in the present lot. But well over a quarter of a million dollars still seems a lot to pay for that strip of Hubbard Park. Of course, the company's owning it will make whatever happens on it of less concern to people who use the park, and will keep random passersby from strolling between the UniFirst fence and Dimmock Pond, or finding other reasons to be there (when the Advocate visited Parker Street in December, a homeless couple was tenting about 20 feet from UniFirst's unmarked fence).

Fuller, however, told the Advocate that the company has no clandestine reason for wanting the land. "We have a lot of problem maneuvering vehicles, and, yes, it's worth the money we're paying for it," he said. "When we first started looking at getting that property, the only thing we were thinking about is, we want a bigger parking lot."

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What is Low-Level Radioactive Waste?

The term "low-level waste" seems to carry a reassuring ring; as a health threat, low-level radioactive waste must be relatively benign, closer to background radiation levels than perilous high-level waste, one would think.

But it's not quite that simple. Federal law defines high-level radioactive waste as spent reactor fuel and waste remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed; low-level waste is simply all other radioactive waste, without regard for the level of radioactivity or the length of life of the radioactive elements. As the federal General Accounting Office explains, "... there is no statutory upper limit or lower limit for the level of radioactivity required to declare a material to be LLRW." LLRW can include everything from uniforms, gloves, shoe covers, rags, filters and tools to lab animal carcasses and even parts from reactor vessels.

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