Solar project helps to reclaim site of notorious Boston-area toxic waste case

By Sarah Shemkus, Energy News Network

A cluster of cancer cases in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1980s prompted a major pollution lawsuit that eventually inspired a book and subsequent movie. Now, a community solar project is bringing “new, positive life” to the site.

A community solar installation generating power for low-income residents and homeless shelters has come online at a suburban Boston property previously best known for its role in a notorious toxic waste case in the 1980s.

“It’s taking a spot that had so much controversy and so much negativity around it and gives a new, positive life to it,” said Leanna Rybacki, project development associate at Sunwealth, the Boston-based clean energy investment firm that owns the project.

Supporters expect the project to produce financial, social, and environmental benefits.

The 362-kilowatt installation is located at a site owned by uniform manufacturer UniFirst, which will receive lease payments for use of the site. Sunwealth’s investors will earn a return on their money. And the project is expected to save housing nonprofit Heading Home and other low-income Boston-area residents thousands of dollars on energy costs each year, while also helping spread the message that clean energy is for everyone — regardless of income. 

“To know that we’re able to partner with an organization that helps folks like our clients access benefits that historically have been reserved for more affluent communities is a huge statement about equity,” said Suzanne Picher, chief development officer at Heading Home. “For us, that is a really big deal.”

UniFirst came to public attention nearly 40 years ago as part of the pollution case that was eventually featured in the book and movie “A Civil Action.” After residents in Woburn, Massachusetts noticed a cluster of cancer cases in one area, they accused three local companies, including UniFirst, of dumping toxic waste and polluting the groundwater. UniFirst agreed to settle out of court for just over $1 million, while the other two went to trial. 

Since then, the land, in a largely industrial neighborhood of Woburn, has lain mostly dormant, though UniFirst has built a storage facility there. 

The community solar project began when Green Earth Roofing Solutions, a solar developer from western Massachusetts, leased the roof of the storage building with a plan to install photovoltaic panels. Green Earth then reached out to Sunwealth to see if the investment company would be interested in acquiring the development.

Sunwealth, which creates investment portfolios that combine market-rate solar projects and installations serving low-income customers, agreed to buy the development and to find low-income customers to sell the power to at a 25% discount. The UniFirst installation is bundled with about a dozen other projects, including solar on affordable housing in New York City and developments on commercial properties in Boston. 

Grouping a range of project types together helps mitigate the investment risk that any single development can pose. Further, all the individual projects are very carefully assessed, Sunwealth’s Chief Executive Jonathan Abe said.

“We’re really prudent about how we structure our low-income community solar projects and make sure we manage credit risk accordingly,” he said. “They’re all going to perform; they all meet our minimum criteria.”

Heading Home will buy half the power generated by the project to help reduce its electricity costs at the emergency shelters and transitional housing it operates for individuals and families facing homelessness. The arrangement will also help educate both clients and staff about the possibilities offered by clean energy, Picher said.

In addition, Heading Home will be able to transfer some of the solar energy credits to clients — more than 80% of whom are people of color — as they start to get back on their feet and move into their own housing. 

“It’s another piece in their fiscal arsenal to be independent and achieve some form of economic mobility,” Picher said. 

The other half of the power will be sold to individual low-income families throughout eastern Massachusetts. 

The development will also help spread a message about the viability of rooftop solar installations at a time when there is an ongoing debate about siting solar projects in Massachusetts. Some larger solar developers are pursuing projects that would take over farmland or require cutting acres of trees, arguing that these kinds of locations are the only places commercial-scale solar is feasible. Some in the conservation community, however, contend that cutting trees and transforming farmland does more harm than good. 

This project demonstrates the scale of good that can be achieved by rooftop projects, said Todd Scyocurka, director of roofing and environmental operations at Green Earth.

“We have a lot of roofs in this country and we’ve got a lot of commercial roofs in New England,” he said. “We should be doing solar on those roofs.”

Together, the benefits of the project combine to help the once toxic site contribute positively into the future, Abe said. 

“No one is going to be able to completely correct the wrongs associated with that brownfield,” he said. “As we look at solar being more inclusive, we feel that this is just an example of a community investment that’s fully additive.”

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