Odor facility clouds future of Bayside project

A long simmering disagreement over an odor control facility planned for Columbia Point - next to the future site of Corcoran Jennison Companies' gigantic "Bayside on the Point" developmen - became a slugfest this week when a state board voted not to alter its original design after months of backroom negotiations.

Calling the facility a threat to air quality across South Boston and Dorchester tantamount to the worst kind of port-o-potty experience, Joseph J. Corcoran all but threatened to pull the plug on the billion-dollar plus development, which has been touted as a "new neighborhood" on the Point.

"We believe that this decision by the MWRA will jeopardize the feasibility of the project," wrote Corcoran in a letter to Joseph Palmieri, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority dated Nov. 13.

The company's flap with the MWRA boils down to a difference of opinion between engineers from each camp on just what kind of impact the facility would have on local nostrils after a large rain event. The odor control building would sit on the up-end of a 2.1-mile long, 17-foot wide tunnel that could store up to 18 million gallons of storm water that, during severe rainstorms, would be mixed with a smaller amount of raw sewage. A federal court mandated the work along with several other projects of its kind in the late 80s, the aim being a clean up of Boston Harbor.

The odor control technology uses activated carbon filters to reduce the offending emanations, eventually releasing the air offset by incoming stormwater from a 40-foot-high stack. But Michael Lannan of Tech Environmental, Corcoran's hired consultant, contends that the wind blowing in from the ocean would flow over the 35-foot high brick building, carrying the emerging effluents from the 40-foot high stack down to the ground on the other side.

"It touches down almost immediately, before there's any dispersion," he said.

Maps created by Lannan's team detail the odor's dispersion for one hour after a peak rain event - the scale of which would not happen every year. They show an inner circle around the Boston Teacher's Union, part of Carson's beach and part of the current Bayside Expo Center where the smell, according to Corcoran, would be akin to "walking into a bathroom that smells so foul that you must immediately turn around and exit." The smell would also be "noticeable," according to the map, as far south as Savin Hill and well north of Broadway in South Boston.

To work better, Lannan said, the stack would have to be much higher. Or, as is preferred by Corcoran, the facility could be built mostly underground.

Frederick Laskey, executive director of the MWRA board of directors, completely rejects Lannan's traveling smell assessment. He calls the analysis "incredible."

"We have these facilities in Quincy where you could hit a golf ball to a house," said Laskey. "They're all in urban areas, and no complaints. Activated carbon is a tried and true method of odor control. It's not raw sewage 24-seven, 365 days a year. It is, for the most part, highly diluted storm water that will come in when we have storms. So in many ways it's a misnamed vent building, but we're already in this discussion about an odor control facility."

One of those facilities, the 1.8 million gallon Union Park Facility, is located in the South End. Corcoran Jennison created a video of homeowner George Triantafillidis, who lives just across Union Park Street from that vent building, talking about a continuing odor and other problems after the MWRA rehabbed the building two years ago.

A very brief survey of homeowners along that street shows differing opinions along the street, however.

Emorfily Potsides, reached at his home that he bought in 1997 across from the Union Park Facility, said, "The problem is not solved. When the rain comes it smells like [expletive] across there."

But Scott Walters, who moved into a condo a few doors down from Potsides in June 2006 and runs an email listserv for neighborhood issues, said he hasn't heard the issue of an odor come up yet, and hasn't smelled it himself.

Walters said he senses that his neighbors, many of whom lived through five years of construction at the site, hold a grudge against the MWRA. Niether he, nor his wife, said they could smell anything after a rain. "Maybe I just don't have a good sense of … what's the word? - Olfactory, yes."

In recent months, Congressman Stephen Lynch and state Sen. Jack Hart have lobbied hard with the MWRA on Corcoran's behalf. Under pressure, the MWRA offered to split the estimated $3 million cost with Corcoran Jennison. But Corcoran doesn't believe they should pay for a public works job that could potentially stink up a wide swath of the neighborhood.

"Almost two years ago the Corcoran family had called them and raised a concern with the odor control facility, which is on their property line," said Sen. Hart. "I raised the issue with MWRA and we worked to resolve this matter… The problem is this: Joe Corcoran is a landowner that has value in his land. That value has been impacted first by the construction of the [new South Boston] convention center, and now by this odor control facility. What the MWRA is asking him to do here is unconscionable."

Of course the MWRA's advisory board, which represents the ratepayers, holds a contrary opinion.

"The ratepayer, who has and will spend over $300 million to clean up the beaches, really should not be asked to put down another dime for an odor control facility whose design process began in 1997," said Joseph Favaloro, the advisory board's executire director. "I'll tell you how we'll split the cost. One hundred percent for Mr. Corcoran, zero percent for the ratepayers."

"I'm not looking to spend the ratepayers money unwisely," said Hart. "I am very cognizant and I try to be responsible in that regard. But there is, in my opinion, an injustice here."

Adding yet another wrinkle to the argument, Corcoran's consultants - including Lannon and well-respected structural engineer Dave Berg - say an underground facility can be built for almost half of what the MWRA's engineers estimate by reorganizing the machinery inside on a smaller footprint.

Joe J. Corcoran met with Laskey on Nov. 7 to present this idea, but Laskey said he did not pass this option on to the board because he was provided with no details of the plan.

"All we got was a one line e-mail that says $1.7 million with no details on it," said Laskey. "If they have better ideas, we'd like to see them. We just haven't seen any meat on the bones."

Lannon said he provided Corcoran with a "basic conceptual mechanical design layout" of the more compact facility, but wasn't sure if Corcoran carried it into the meeting with Laskey. And to Laskey's claim that his odor control analysis was not credible, Lannon responded:

"Well that's interesting, because we just did odor control training for them recently."

An MWRA spokesperson confirmed the training contract this week.

Nevertheless, Laskey insists that the project must move forward in order to meet a March 2011 deadline set by a federal judge.

"In our view we have made a good faith effort to cooperate with Corcoran Jennison," he said. "We said we would talk about half. He never got beyond that. We've kind of been involved in a little dance here and we've run out of time." Related coverage: Odor control facility raises new questions on Columbia Point- Feb. 21, 2008 Bayside developers go public with site plans- July 17, 2008 Sketches outline new-deal for Columbia Point- August 14, 2008