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July 15, 2013

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Spills on banks of Merrimack spark environmental, health concerns

(Continued)

The isolated and buffered location suggests there is little risk of direct exposure to the general public, but a local health official and an environmental advocate said the larger threat is to the Merrimack River and to swimmers, fishermen and boaters who may come in contact with the waterway if it is contaminated by the spills.

“Most certainly, people most directly exposed should use protective gloves and masks and wash properly afterward,” Joel Gorn, chairman of Lawrence’s Board of Health, said about workers involved in the cleanup. “By all means, there should be some testing downstream. People swim downriver. They jump off their boats.”

Christopher Burkhart, president of the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District Employees Association, which represents about 26 workers, did not return a message left for him at the plant.

“The bacterial contamination that would be in this is one of the biggest problems for this river,” said Caroly Shumway, executive director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council, an advocacy group that regularly tests the river’s water quality and sends results to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “There has to be better enforcement.”

Hogan, the sanitary district’s $130,000-a-year executive director, said employees have walked the drainage channels that run from the site and reported that “the foam material peters out” before reaching the Merrimack River. Hogan has run the plant since 1994 and retires later this year.

In addition to the DEC, Hogan said, plant officials have informed the EPA and North Andover’s Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission about the spills.

”Everybody’s on it, that’s about all I can say at this point,” Selectwoman Rosemary Smedile said Friday. “Mr. Hogan has been keeping us fully abreast. There’s always concern, but I think everything that can be done is being done.”

“Everyone’s aware of it,” said Dave Deegan, a spokesman for the EPA’s New England office in Boston. Beyond that, Deegan said, the EPA does not confirm or deny whether any spill is under review. He referred questions to the state DEP.

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