The Boston Globe – March 3, 2021


Project stumbles on debris. School renovation work still on time, town says.
By Erica Noonan, Globe Staff Correspondent, 3/3/2021

Crews working on the renovated Sprague Elementary School have encountered logistical and environmental problems because of the discovery of tons of soil containing debris such as tires, broken glass, manhole covers, rusted metal, and ceramic flooring.

Wellesley officials confirmed that much of the solid waste was uncovered during an excavation behind the old school building several months ago, as crews dug into a large section of earth designated for roads and 105-space parking lot.

It appears the site's history as a landfill for ash and municipal refuse during the 1940s and 1950s has come back to haunt the $16 million renovation of the elementary school, which is to house hundreds of students in September. However, officials said the project remains on schedule and the waste does not pose a public hazard.

Workers have reported finding rusted auto parts, pipes, and old newspapers during the yearlong excavation project. Last week, mountains of dirt visible from Route 9 and School Street formed a huge half-moon behind the school.

Project directors had decided to build the new school as far away from the old landfill as possible, and relied on tests that showed negligible amounts of debris at the site, officials said. The bid documents offered to contractors did not indicate that significant landfill waste would be be present, companies involved in the excavation said.

“We had reports done prior to construction, and found only trace elements of material. But unfortunately, during construction, we encountered some debris pockets,” said Jerry McCarty, the town's facilities director.

The town arranged to remove 600 cubic yards of trash-laden dirt last fall, at a cost of approximately $100,000, McCarty said. The unexpected expense will be covered by the project's contingency fund, he said.

The original Sprague School building, named after the naturalist and artist Isaac Sprague, dates from the 1920s, and was used as an elementary school until the mid-1970s. When school enrollment declined, the building served as the town's recreation department offices for nearly 15 years.

The landfill adjacent to the school building was covered in the 1960s and converted to playing fields for town-sponsored youth sports. For many years, there was little concern over the site's history as a dump, aside from anecdotal reports in the 1970s and 1980s of brownish liquid seeping from the ground after a heavy rain.

The dump predates state Departmental of Environmental Protection records, and state investigators have not been directly involved with the Sprague School project, except to investigate a minor oil spill at the site in 1997, said Ed Coletta, a DEP spokesman. That spill was cleaned up and the case closed, he said.

Despite the unexpected waste removal operation, McCarty said, work on the school renovation is proceeding as scheduled. The piles of excavated soil at the site should not alarm onlookers, he said.

“It looks like heck, but going into this project, everyone knew there could be excess soil. It doesn't mean anything is wrong with the soil, just that we have excess soil,” he said.

But there are some unresolved questions concerning some soil that remains underground. The town and the contractor disagree on whether other potential debris pockets should be excavated, and replaced with so-called clean fill before the planned parking lot is compacted and paved over this spring.

Contractors are generally required to warranty their work, and the company has suggested that a base of uncleared landfill waste could cause the parking lot to settle and crack prematurely.

Town officials are not convinced that more excavation is necessary, and believe a structurally sound parking lot can be built atop whatever material remains underground, McCarty said. He declined further comment because the matter is still under negotiation with the contractor.

Through a spokeswoman, Steve King, a project executive for Peabody-based Congress Construction Co., said that his company did haul away “unsuitable” materials containing debris to a lined landfill in New Hampshire last summer. He said the company is not under contract to remove any more refuse-laden dirt from the site.

Local environmental officials also are keeping close watch on the site. Soil samples from areas to the rear of the school are being retested for the presence of lead and cadmium as a precaution, said Leonard Izzo, an inspector for the town Board of Health.

A separate company is testing soil for possible contamination caused by a digging machine that leaked a small amount of oil, McCarty said.

Izzo said the lead and cadmium soil tests conducted by ATC Associates Inc., a Woburn-based environmental testing firm, could be back as early as next week.

At the town's request, ATC tested soil at the Sprague site in the mid-1990s and found reportable traces of heavy-metal pollutants. But subsequent tests showed allowable levels of lead and cadmium present in the soil, and a “no significant risk” finding was issued for the construction site, according to a September 1997 ATC Site Investigation Report.

Izzo reiterated that the construction site was safe for workers, people living nearby, and the children who will attend the school six months from now.

“There are no health risks that we are aware of,” he said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at

This story ran on page W1 of the Boston Globe on 3/3/2002.
©Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.