Port Norfolk lot rehab still stalled; cleanup needed; funding on hold

Residents of Dorchester’s Port Norfolk neighborhood have been waiting too long for the clean-up of a 14-acre lot for about 30 years, they say. And it appears they’ll have to wait a while longer. “That’s been put off about a year,” said Wendy Fox, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the agency that owns the property.

The waterfront area, located near the MBTA bridge on the northern shore of the Neponset and in state hands since the 1980s, was once marshland that was filled in with coal ash in the 1850s. The parcel is best known through one of its past owners, the Shaffer Paper Company. Other previous occupants include a lumber yard, a metal fabricating company, and a manufacturer of wooden tubs.

Refuse from all these companies has the left the soil contaminated with chemicals that the department must remove before it builds the waterfront park that Port Norfolk residents have longed for. (At one point in the early 1980s, residents created a human blockade to stop dump trucks from delivering loads of hazardous waste to the site.)

At past neighborhood association meetings, residents have discussed building a pine grove, a stone-dust path, a “tot-lot,” a playground, a promenade, and a small boat dock, ideas that haven’t changed much since they were first discussed 17 years ago.

But the decontamination of the area has to come first, something the Department of Conservation and Recreation needs money for. “DCR does not have the money right now to do this,” Fox said.
About $7 million for studying how to rehabilitate the site and create a park was included in an environment-focused borrowing bill state lawmakers passed in 2008. But the release of the funds needs to be authorized by Gov. Deval Patrick, leading to lobbying from local politicians, including state Sen. Jack Hart, state Rep. Marty Walsh and City Councillor Maureen Feeney, and Port Norfolk residents.

At a recent get-together with the governor, hosted by James W. Hunt Jr., the longtime president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Mary McCarthy buttonholed Patrick and pressed her case.

“Port Norfolk has been waiting for this thing for 30 years,” McCarthy, who is president of the Port Norfolk Civic Association, told the Reporter. “It’s a mess back there. It just is. And it is not acceptable.”

Rep. Walsh said he was hopeful that the governor would authorize the funding, but noted that the weak economy had made it harder to get funds released. “It’s hard to convince people up here on Beacon Hill to appropriate money for a park” when other state issues compete for attention, he said.

Port Norfolk residents remain frustrated. “It just seems there’s no urgency,” McCarthy said. “And it’s the last piece of the waterfront. It’s environmentally unsafe. It’s unacceptable to keep putting this off and off and off.”

She added of some of her fellow neighbors: “They think they’re going to die before it’s done.”