WESTFIELD – The City Council was unanimous in its support of an Intergovernmental Agreement between the City of Westfield and the Department of the Air Force for reimbursement of some of the costs incurred in treating the water for PFAS contamination; as evidenced by a roll call vote at the end of the Special City Council meeting on Thursday afternoon.
Also momentous was the admission by the Air Force of its role in the contamination through their use of aqueous fire-fighting foam (AFFF) at Barnes Air National Guard.
Mayor Brian P. Sullivan, who called for the meeting, thanked the city councilors for making it to a 3 p.m. meeting on three days’ notice. He also acknowledged the guests in the room who he said all had a part in the agreement through their longstanding support of the city’s quest for remediation of a problem they didn’t cause, including the offices of U.S. Sen. Richard Neal, state Sen. Donald F. Humason Jr. and state rep. John C. Velis; Western Regional Director of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Michael Gorski and City Solicitors Susan Phillips and Meghan Bristol.
Sullivan also said the city had to act quickly in order to get the $1.3 million being offered by the Air Force — coming out of $20 million authorized by U.S. Congress – because the money would be gone by the end of the day on Friday.
Giving some background on the funding, Sullivan said they had been told time and time again in talks with the government and their legal team that the city didn’t qualify for the funds. Regardless, in 2018, Sue Phillips and Meghan Bristol put together the application and all the information they would need in case things did change.
“In August, that happened, and Westfield was in line,” Sullivan said. He said all along they had the same goals; first, to deliver clean water, second to manage and monitor the systems, and third to recoup some of the funds that the citizens of Westfield had to lay out.
“We were persistent in what we had to do,” Sullivan said. He said this is just the first step in recovering the funds, and only involves costs incurred on Wells 7 and 8, the only ones that tested higher than 7 parts per trillion between Jan. 1, 2017 and Sept. 1, 2018.
Phillips said Westfield was not considered eligible because the Department of Defense had an ongoing investigation. She said something changed on Aug. 13, and Westfield was notified that they were one of five eligible communities.
Phillips said she and the government went back and forth on what she called “onerous” language in the initial waiver attached to the agreement, which they refused to sign. Then last week, they received an agreement without the onerous language.
The agreement cites remediation for the levels of PFAS caused by the Air National Guard, which Phillips said is an admission. The recovery waives responsibility for costs incurred for treatment before Sept. 28, 2018, but Phillips said the city is not barred from pursuing any and every opportunity going forward, including the complaint against the Department of Defense and the three manufacturers of the AFFF, which is currently in a court in North Carolina.
“The Congress offered $20 million – that was huge. It was the first time the Air Force admitted fault. Moving forward with litigation, it helps that the Air Force had an admission,” Phillips said.
At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean, II thanked the mayor for his leadership on this issue, and asked how important is it going forward that Westfield speak in one voice.
Sullivan said there should be solidarity in regards to the whole issue.
“Group effort is the way to go, and not just with litigation. (DPW Assistant Superintendent) Fran Cain just got back from Chicago accepting an award for our efforts,” he added.
“Thanks to the team. I’m happy with the deal. Normally, I’m very skeptical – this waiver of claim is one of the best things I’ve ever seen come out of the Law Department; a really good thing. The admission to me is a big deal, too,” said At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty.
Flaherty added that several councilors and WRAFT — Westfield Residents Advocating for Themselves – also helped to get things done. “People recognize more than just politicians. They deserve a lot of credit, too,” he said.
Flaherty also said he had a question on the expenditures, and would like to see the money going to pay for water treatment and bond repayment.
“I’ll leave it for another day,” Flaherty said.
Sullivan said he agreed with Flaherty about the other people who have been working on the issue in Westfield, and has given them credit from the podium in Council Chambers. “I just wish we’d do it as a group, so people understand we’re all looking (towards the same goals),” he said.
“Everyone is thinking in the same direction,” said At-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi, III, who served as president pro temps at the meeting for Council President Ralph J. Figy, who is away.
Ward 1 Councilor Mary Ann Babinski said as an affected-ward councilor, she has had a front row seat to the work being done on this issue. “I hope people in my ward realize the effort they put in to this positive key outcome,” she said, adding, “Unity is community.”
Sullivan said both she and Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski had a front row seat because they had the voice of people in the ward.
“I want to take a little bit of credit,” said Ward 3 Councilor Andrew K. Surprise. “When I contacted the Department of Defense, they said the Air National Guard didn’t qualify. I passed that information along to Kristen Mello, who went to D.C. to get that law changed. “
“It’s a great agreement. I’m going to be voting for it,” added Surprise.
At-large Councilor Matthew Emmershy also thanked Sullivan and Solicitor Phillips for the work. He asked whether anything in the law referenced in the IGA, would stop the city from going forward.
“That law authorizes this little piece, and will expire after the funds are used up,” Phillips said.
Onyski then read the resolution, followed by the unanimous roll call vote.
“The City has been very proactive in providing safe drinking water and we are pleased that the Air Force is stepping up to begin to render some financial assistance. Mass DEP will continue to work with the City in that regard,” said Gorski in a statement following the meeting.