Study could clear way for park in Port Norfolk

In a small step forward for a blighted Port Norfolk lot, state conservation officials unveiled preliminary findings this week that chemical levels in the waterfront soil are lower than expected.

The findings put the fenced-off 14-acre area on track to be finally turned into a massive neighborhood waterfront park, a project nearly 30 years in the making.

"It's an understatement to say this is a long time coming," said Maureen Feeney, District 3 councillor, who attended the meeting after Mayor Thomas Menino's state of the city address.

Officials from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) told members of the Port Norfolk Civic Association that preliminary results from environmental analyses show the land is contaminated with elevated metals, including lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

The level of polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, are lower than expected at 4 parts per million, meaning the federal Environmental Protection Agency does not have to get involved, saving the project money and red tape.

The randomly distributed chemicals and residue are leftovers from the past, when the area was largely a toxic waste site. Previous occupants included a lumber yard, a metal fabricating company, a manufacturer of wooden tubs or drums, and the Shaffer Paper company, which the parcel is best known for.

The area, in state hands since the 1980s, was once marshland that was filled in with coal ash, in the 1850s, much in the same manner as Boston's Back Bay.

DCR officials said they hope to de-contaminate the site and build a park in one shot, in order to save money.

The final report, with hard data, will likely be finished sometime this spring. The agency had hired a consultant, Woburn-based GEI Consultants, for the report.

In a statement, DCR Commissioner Richard Sullivan called the preliminary results "promising" and said, "We look forward to receiving the final report from GEI, addressing the findings through remediation, and transforming this area into valuable recreational space."

Beacon Hill lawmakers have tried to put in funding for the project in prior budget cycles, with little success, as other parks took precedence, including Pope John Paul II Park and the Granite Avenue Park.

"It's still a matter of dollars," said Michael Misslin, deputy chief engineer at DCR. "Hopefully, this'll rise to the top."

The project will likely cost less than Granite Avenue's Neponset II Park, which carried a price tag of $6 to $7 million, according to Catherine Garrett, a project manager at DCR.

Feeney estimated the project could be completed in three years.

"I think at this point, the exciting part is we have a timeframe," she said.

Mary McCarthy, a member of the Port Norfolk Civic Association, said she was "very optimistic" about the project's prospects.

"Do I think it's going to happen? Yes," she said.

The civic association plans to form a subcommittee to work with agency officials on what they would like to see in the new park.

Members of the civic association on Tuesday night said they are still comfortable with plans laid out for the park over 15 years ago. The plans included a pine grove, a stone-dust path, a lookout, a "tot lot," a playground, a promenade and a small boat dock.

A controversial idea floated last year by a group of Neponset area volunteers that would have sited an aquatic-oriented youth center on a portion of the property was not mentioned.

The plans don't call for swimming areas due to the contamination of PCBs in the Neponset River, DCR officials said.