Square Building Lots Found Contaminated

Hazardous chemicals have delayed construction plans for two building sites near Harvard dormitories, spokesmen for their owners said yesterday.

A large parking lot behind Quincy House on DeWolfe St., where developer H.J. Davis plans to build condominiums, has residues of lead, arsenic and petroleum under the blacktop, and St. Paul's Parish, which agreed to sell Davis the land, must pay to clean it up.

In addition, the University-owned Gulf station across the street from the Freshman Union, which Harvard plans to replace with a hotel, has several leaking underground gas tanks with water and fuel in them.

Harvard's plans for the station are in their early stages, so there is time to clean up the site before construction must start. But St. Paul's Parish has already had to put off its own construction project, on a new choir school and student center, while it looks into removing the waste from the lot.

The Catholic congregation agreed in the summer of 1987 to sell Davis its rectory and parking lot for more than $7 million. All of the money was to have paid for new construction across the street.

But the contract with Davis required St. Paul's to deliver the lot in a condition acceptable under state environmental standards--so the parish now faces heavy cleanup costs, said Sister Mary K. Powers, chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Student Center.

Engineers testing the St. Paul's parking lot found small amounts of chemicals including lead, arsenic and petroleum, said Powers.

State law requires most owners selling land or beginning developments to test the soil for hazards under the auspices of the Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE).

Powers said that to prepare the land for sale, the parish must find out what chemicals, in what concentrations, are present, how much of the area is contaminated, and how much it will cost to clean up, she said. Right now, the church is working on the second of the three steps.

The engineers working for St. Paul's thought the wastes could have come from the residential neighborhood that stood on the land during the 1950s, she said. The lead traces could have come from paint on the houses, and the arsenic from rat poisons used more than 30 years ago. As far as church officials know, no factories ever existed on the land, she said.

Arsenic can cause a rash if it touches theskin, and after long-term ingestion, can causecancer, said DEQE spokesman Katie Stimmel.Exposure to high levels of lead can cause braindamage in children, she said. She added that moreprecise information about the risks at the sitewould take more time and testing.

Parish plans for the student center, whichserves many Harvard undergraduates, are on holduntil the deal goes through. Many of the center'sactivities have moved to the houses and otherlocations.

But, said Powers, the delays are frustrating."It's frustrating because you get your things allpiled up and you don't have any other place togo."

The problems on the St. Paul's land haveprompted Harvard to test the adjacent parkinglot--which developer Davis also offered to buylast spring--for hazardous waste, said Harvard'sDirector of Planning Kathy Spiegleman.

"It is likely that there are some things on ourlot," she said. "Certainly, if you know yourneighbor has found something on their site, itwould be prudent to have it taken care of beforeyou do any building or development on it. "Shesaid Harvard has done only preliminary testing onthe site so far.

Meanwhile, the University is also preparing toclean up the gas tanks at the Gulf station site soit can build a hotel there to serve Universityguests and visitors. The tanks will have to beremoved and the soil surrounding them placed in alandfill; how much and what kind depends on theamount of hazardous material there.

Harvard Real Estate's Vice President ofProperty Operations David A. Zewinski called theproblem with the gas tanks "not an extremelyserious situation."

"It does not represent a hazard to thewell-being of the general public," he added.

"It's an added cost but very common for anyurban site," said Spiegelman, who served as headof the Cambridge Community Development Departmentbefore taking her Harvard post