NEWBURYPORT — It's been an unusual year for ENPRO, the Newburyport firm that cleans up hazardous waste left behind by man-made mishaps like truck crashes and oil spills.
This year, there have been two significant disasters, both caused by deluges of rain, that have put the company on the front line of unusually massive cleanup efforts.
This week, the firm is finishing up work on one of the biggest natural disasters to hit New England in years — flooding and property damage in Vermont caused by Tropical Storm Irene.
"It's probably one of the largest projects we've ever worked on, said Geoff Brown, vice president of ENPRO. "There was so much devastation up there."
And earlier this year, the company picked up millions of plastic disks that washed out of a Hooksett, N.H., sewage treatment plant. The disks washed up on shorelines along the Merrimack River and were found as far away as Rhode Island.
In late August, Irene dumped up to 15 inches of rain on the state, causing the worst flooding Vermont has seen in 83 years. The ground was already partially saturated from a wet summer, and when the rains came, rivers and creeks turned into torrents that flooded everything along their banks.
ENPRO was already in Vermont and ready to respond to the storm, though initially it wasn't there to react to flooding, Brown said. Utility companies typically call on the company to clean up hazardous oil that spills out of electrical pole transformers, and it was expected that the storm would knock down numerous poles.
But flooding quickly became a major concern, and ENPRO found itself responding to flooded homes, trailer parks and a historic state office complex in Waterbury, where the Winooski River had overflowed its banks. The problems ENPRO encountered in the region ran a wide gamut, from overturned chemicals in the state forensic and agricultural labs to oil tanks that had broken loose in basements to a pair of full propane cylinders that had become wedged underneath a bridge.
The Waterbury office park proved a major challenge.
"It was severely flooded. I think they had up to 6 feet of water," said Brown, noting that the 19th century complex buildings were connected by underground tunnels. "Unfortunately, the tunnels exacerbated the conditions when they flooded, because they transferred water extensively. There was a lot of water damage."
ENPRO's task was to clean up oil and chemical spills. That included cleaning out oil-soaked silt and mud that had flowed into offices and dealing with oil heating tanks that had leaked or become contaminated with water. Among the tools at the company's disposal were a portable water-treatment facility that treated more than 200,000 gallons of contaminated water, separation tanks to split oil from water and allow the oil to be recycled, and vacuum trucks that sucked the mud and debris out of buildings, Brown said.
"We were able to treat the water right there," said Brown.
Cleanup work continues in Vermont and may take months, if not years, to complete. In the case of the state office complex — a handsome campus of brick buildings — things may never be the same.
"There's a lot of remedial work that needs to be done to make it suitable to move people back in there," Brown said. "There was something like 1,500 people that worked there."
Indeed, Gov. Peter Shumlin recently announced that his administration has no plans to try to reopen the facility immediately. A decision is expected next year, after substantial data is collected.
Waterbury, which was one of the state's hardest-hit towns, continues its efforts to revive. The town of 5,000 people is a few miles northwest of Montpelier on Interstate 89, at the primary highway exit for Stowe-bound tourists. It's also home to Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream company.
"It was pretty catastrophic," said Jeanne Kirby, executive director of the nonprofit firm Revitalizing Waterbury. About one-third of the town's 600 buildings were flooded, she said. Many are still not inhabited.
Besides state and federal help, nonprofit groups such as Revitalizing Waterbury have raised donations to help people bridge the gap between what insurance and/or government aid will pay and the actual cost of losses. Kirby's group created a sub-organization, called ReBuild Waterbury, specifically to help flood victims.
Along with damage to homes, the local economy has struggled to get back on its feet. The closure of the state office buildings has been a major blow to the town.
"You can't escape that," Kirby said. "That accounts for about one-third of the daytime population."
A recent survey of 90 local businesses reported a 30 to 40 percent loss in business from a year ago, she said. Still the town sees signs of hope, which come a piece at a time. For instance, a lease was just taken out on a landmark downtown grocery store, and a flower shop damaged by the flood just reopened in a new location, she said.
"Businesses are definitely doing all they can to come back up and recover," she said.
How to Help
ReBuild Waterbury is raising money to assist local Vermonters who suffered loss in the Tropical Irene floods. Money is directed to Waterbury, which siffered the worst losses in the storm.
Contact www.ReBuildWaterbury.org or mail checks to RBW, P.O. Box 633, Waterbury, VT 05676. Make checks payable to Revitalizing Waterbury with "ReBuild Waterbury" in the memo line.