NY Times Corp Leaves Taxpayer on the Hook for Contamination in Worcester
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Before the sale, Telegram and Gazette publisher Bruce Gaultney publicly promised that the building was “not a brownfield.”
But subsequent environmental tests uncovered extensive contamination from lead, asbestos, and other hazardous materials.
The total cost of the cleanup: $1,115,000—and that’s just an estimate for now, according to Julie Holstrom, project manager at the New Garden Park, the nonprofit arm of the quasi-public Worcester Business Development Corporation that bought the property for $300,000 last fall.
Only taxpayer funds so far
The effort is part of a broader drive to revitalize a blighted downtown area where the lack of daytime street activity has fueled the “local perception” that it is “dangerous and destitute,” New Garden Park said in its application for EPA funds.
A taxpayer advocate, however, questions whether the project is really a wise and necessary use of taxpayer funds. “We have a national debt of $16 trillion. Even if something is worth doing and we know exactly where the money is going, we can’t do it anymore,” said Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, which is based in Massachusetts.
And, in this case, she said it’s far from clear that a true public good is being served—such as the construction of a police station or a homeless shelter. Nor is it clear, she said, exactly how public funds are being used by the quasi-public Worcester Business Development Corporation. She described such quasi-public corporations as shadow agencies “all over the place doing heavens knows what with our money.”
Councilman: NYT should pay up
It’s not yet known where the rest of the money for the cleanup will come from. Holstrom said there are a number of alternative funding sources that are being sought, including funding form MassDevelopment, another quasi-public agency with which New Garden Park shares office space in Worcester.
Worcester City Councilman Frederick Rushton says taxpayers shouldn’t be the first ones to be hit up for the cost. “The Telegram and Gazette should be tapped first,” Rushton said. “They should be good corporate citizens and clean it up.”
In fact, by selling the building, the New York Times was able to ensure that taxpayer money could be used for the cleanup. Otherwise, as the owner, under EPA guidelines, it would have to shoulder those costs itself.
Anderson says it’s no surprise the Times’ business policies are reflecting its editorial stances on the use of taxpayer funds.
“The New York Times has never editorialized in favor of less national debt or smaller government. The New York Times has always been an advocate for big government and now they’re using big government,” Anderson said.
No deal yet with NYT
In its November 2011 application for EPA funding, New Garden Park stated that the New York Times, had agreed to chip in $300,000 toward the cleanup—only for the below ground contamination. But yesterday, Holstrom said that matter is subject to ongoing negotiations between the two organizations and she declined to elaborate.
A spokeswoman, Kathlene Donahue, for the Telegram and Gazette also declined to comment on the negotiations. Instead, she released this statement:
“As we have stated before, the announcement of the EPA grant was a positive step in the WBDC’s efforts to revitalize the area around the Hanover Theatre. The T&G is talking with the WBDC about possible funding to help with the necessary clean up that is very typical for a site such as this. We have been working with the WBDC for some time, but cannot comment on the specifics of our negotiations.”
Holstrom denied that her group has been unfairly saddled with the cleanup costs. “They’ve been very open and fair with us,” Holstrom said. “I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to help. That’s not the case at all.”
New Garden Park was not aware of just how contaminated the 18-20 Franklin Street building was before it purchased it. “We didn’t really have a good idea,” Holstrom said. “We hadn’t done a significant amount of environmental testing at the point that we purchased it.”
It wasn’t until late October, right before the actual purchase date, that the first phase of an environmental site assessment uncovered what would be expected after a century of industrial and commercial use: asbestos throughout the upper floor tiles of the building, lead paint, and other hazardous metals.
The full extent of the contamination, however, has not yet been made public. The second phase of environmental testing probed what contamination there might be underground, but Holstrom declined to release those results, saying it was nonpublic information.
Economic development eyed
New Garden Park is moving ahead with the cleanup, even as it continues to seek full funding for the project. The organization is also making plans for what it wants to do with the site once the contamination has been removed and the Telegram and Gazette—which is leasing the space for this year—has moved on.
Holstrom said her group is eyeing the site as a possible home to the Training and Education Center and a health program for Quinsigamond Community College. She said the proposal is currently under review by state authorities.
The total cost of the redevelopment project at the site, including the cleanup, is $10 million, according Holstrom.
One city councilman, Philip Palmieri, says National Garden Park’s first priority should be getting a handle on exactly how much the cleanup will cost. “We really need to know how much of that building has been contaminated and the cost,” Palmieri told GoLocalWorcester. “How do you move forward if you don’t know that?”
Asked for his views on whether taxpayer funds should be used, Palmieri responded that he was “pleased” that Congressman Jim McGovern had helped the community obtain the federal EPA funds.
But the receipt of federal funds should not be that much of a comfort for local taxpayers, Anderson said. Ultimately it’s all taxpayer money—regardless of whether it is collected locally or at the federal level, she said.
Note: Paul Morano, the director of business assistance and the coordinator for the city brownfields fund, was unavailable for comment for this report.
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