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A Dusting at The Pit

Bob Dylan claimed it was "the answer," but what else is blowin' in the wind out on Highway 62?

I was coming home from work the other evening when I went by the gravel pits with all the windows down and the sunroof open in my car. Big mistake. Got me coughing. First thing I did when I got home was grab a nice drink of water. That got me thinking…

As you approach North Reading from Wilmington on Route 62, the road turns a bit to the northeast and climbs from wetlands toward some tall pines. On the right is the seemingly shut-down Shea Concrete site. On the left is the giant gravel pit that is home to Benevento Sand & Stone, Hefron Materials, and Aggregate Industries. You can’t miss it – just take a deep breath.

This place has always intrigued the boy in me. With big trucks coming and going, smoke belching from the asphalt plant, cement mixers spinning, and all those conveyor belts and hoppers; there’s plenty to watch while driving by. It all reminds me of a little toy my sons used to enjoy that had a marble-carrying dump truck scurrying here and there along a track repeatedly dumping its cargo so the little bucket loader could once again scoop it into the hopper ready to dispense it into the dump truck again. We’d watch that thing for hours.

The big difference is that the toy was plastic and got scrubbed in the sink if ever necessary. The real thing is a whole lot dirtier. If there’s a wind from the North or West and you’re driving by, you’d better get those windows up or a dusty haze can quickly form on the dashboard of your car – not to mention on your skin or in your lungs.

A bunch of that dust lands on the road, combines with materials dropped from exiting trucks, and is washed to the sides through muddy puddles with each rain. Over time it builds up along the edges of the road forming a natural “curb” rather than a drop-off shoulder. At least once I remember seeing equipment out on the road to reclaim some of the dirt and lower the curbs – something that probably should be done more regularly to avoid the lake-like puddles and giant weed growths that form on the margins of the road there.

I found myself wondering about what’s really in that dust. I’m sure a huge part of it is just fine grains of dirt that fly off as stones are separated from sand or gravel is poured here or there. But I bet some of it falls out of the smoke from that asphalt plant or from whatever other processing goes on in “The Pit”. As I look at the grime-whitened tree leaves along the road I wonder how much of that dust gets into people’s lungs or onto sheets hung out to dry at Edgewood. (Wait, does anyone hang out sheets to dry anymore?)

What really scares me about this place is its proximity to Martin’s Brook: the waterway that begins at the outflow from Martins Pond, meanders its way through the gravel pits, loops into Wilmington, passes the “Railroad Bed Wellfield” drinking water source, and then snakes back to join the Ipswich River behind the Dancing School.

When all that dust gets scrubbed out of the air during a spring rain or a summer gulley washer and all that run-off finds its way down into Martin’s Brook and on toward the Ipswich River, what does it bring with it? How much of it is filtered out by the sand and gravel it passes through before entering our drinking water system? And how much ends up in our drinking glasses?

I have no reason to believe the companies operating in The Pit aren’t fully compliant with all environmental requirements, and I’m sure all legally necessary measures have been taken to minimize silt and control run-off and so on, but thinking about this sure made me want to read the town’s annual drinking water report just a bit more closely this time around. I love that we performed well on all the things they measured for – I just wonder about the things they didn’t measure for.

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Laura Kernan July 14, 2011 at 05:14 PM
Here's my thoughts on this having taken both an industrial hygiene class and toxicology class. (however I am not a professional IH). Probably an environmental assessment would be needed to fully answer this question. Like you I don't know the full extant of what goes on at these businesses and have reason to believe they are in violation of any codes, but I am going to make the assumption that we are speaking just of dust and particulate matter with no harmful chemicals in it. (although the production of asphalt could be releasing PAH's, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are carcinogenic) I believe that municipal water treatment plants are able to filter these particles out, so probably inhalation is the route of exposure to think about. Particulate matter by itself is capable of causing lung problems. I really don't know how much is getting released into the air by these businesses and how big the particles are. The EPA has some information regarding particle size and health effects of particulate matter if you are interested. http://www.epa.gov/pm/ Probably the largest effects are felt by the workers there, although effects to the surrounding community and residents are important, the workers are most exposed. Hopefully, the site has an IH manager who addresses this issue and workers are being given proper training and protective equipment.

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