Contaminated soil delays Five Corners’ drainage project

Town officials say they are frustrated that two separate projects are unnecessarily coupled.

The drainage outfall pipe at the end of Beach Road Extension into Vineyard Haven Harbor. —MV Times

A state study looking at stemming the flooding at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven has been stalled after contractors dug up what they believe is contaminated soil at a town-owned piece of land.

Contractors working with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation were taking soil samples at 21 Beach St. last spring — a town parking lot next to Cumberland Farms, which used to be a fire station — when they came across what they described as black soil that smelled like petroleum. 

The samples were part of a study looking at building a system to capture stormwater uphill from Five Corners, before the water added to the flooding issues at the notorious Vineyard intersection. 

The contractors, in documents sent to the town in July and obtained by The Times, did not identify the substance, and have pulled back from the project, saying that they would not proceed until the town addresses the contamination. 

Nearly a year later, the state recently moved to push back funding for at least another year, as the town considers addressing the contaminated soil.

Meanwhile, town officials say, the state has coupled the Beach Street drainage project with a more complex and more important plan aimed at fixing an outfall pipe at the end of Beach Road Extension. 

And the town has expressed frustration with the state Department of Transportation’s slow response to the flooding. 

Mass DOT project manager Patrick Snyder did not respond to a request for an interview for this article, and was not available for earlier attempts to be interviewed about the wider issue of flooding and a perception by business owners and town officials that the state is failing to see the urgency of the situation. 

As has been outlined by state and town officials, the outfall pipe near the Black Dog restaurant often clogs up with debris during storms, slowing down drainage. At an elevation near sea level and with nowhere else for the water to flow, Five Corners and the surrounding area are often inundated both from storm surge and rainwater collecting from different areas of town.

Over the winter, multiple businesses in the area complained of flooding, and many have called for action to solve the issue, suggesting that the state doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation.

Town officials, also frustrated by the state’s inaction, say the outfall pipe is significantly more consequential to the flooding than capturing water uphill at the 21 Beach St. site. And while the Beach Street project stalls over the contaminated soil, so does the work on the outfall pipe.

“Beach Road is like a chain and ball around our feet,” town administrator Jay Grande told The Times this week. “I think the state needs to be more aggressive about the outfall pipe, and from day 1, they have been dragging their feet on it.” 

While the water capture at the Beach Street site might help address flooding, planners say, the site might not be a good place for capturing water, saying that it could lead to flooding at the Post Office, Veterans Park, and other nearby properties.

“We would prefer to just go with the outfall pipe, and locate retention areas in less burdensome ways,” Grande said. While the state has at least started work on 21 Beach St., he says that he hasn’t seen any action on designs for the outfall pipe. 

The proposal to delay funding the project was posted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission last month, after the commission’s Joint Transportation Committee met to revise its state funding calendar. An amendment to the current funding program would remove about $1.7 million set aside for the Tisbury Drainage Improvements project from fiscal years 2024 and 2025, listing the soil contamination as the reason.

“MassDOT feels that if these concerns are properly addressed, that they will be able to deliver a solid project,” the transportation planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Michael Mauro, told the Times. Funding from the state is provided through its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which is coordinated through the MVC for Island towns. “Whether or not the project gets completely removed altogether is reliant on the municipality meeting their deadlines, etc.” 

The state’s plan to delay the funding hasn’t been made official yet; a public comment period closes on March 14. But on the town level, Grande questions the transparency of the state pushing funding for another year. He says he wasn’t made aware of the funding delay until contacted by The MV Times last week. 

“Frankly, I was surprised,” Grande said. “I should have been told.”

In his testimony submitted for public comment, he asked that the Beach Street and outfall pipe projects be uncoupled, because while both address flooding, he argues, they are separate projects. “Do not let them off the hook,” his correspondence concluded, referring to the state.


Contaminated soil

The project started several years ago with a study that came out of the University of New Hampshire Stormwater Center, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the local Tisbury Waterworks Inc., and other entities. Out of the report, there were a number of recommendations for improved drainage in Tisbury. MassDOT picked up on the recommendations, and targeted the former fire station site as a possible area to capture stormwater.

According to state officials at a hearing before the Tisbury Select Board in June 2022, the idea was to collect water in the area and send it through a subterranean filtration system. That would pull some of the water traveling downhill off the street and away from Five Corners. 

The project would also evaluate the outfall pipes that drain into Vineyard Haven Harbor at the end of Beach Road Extension, and find the best solution for managing that outflow. As explained by state officials at the time, the pipes at the end of Beach Road Extension are constantly buried, and a primary contributor to flooding at Five Corners. 

The Tisbury Select Board voted to endorse the Beach Street and Beach Street Extension drainage project at the June hearing. 

Then, in July 2023, the town received a letter from Carrie Lavallee, deputy administrator and chief engineer at MassDOT highway department, noting that they would stop the project because of the contaminated soil. 

According to the letter, design engineers Greenman-Pedersen Inc. oversaw excavation contractors Lawrence-Lynch Corp. in April last year, while they conducted four soil-test pits at 21 Beach St. The test pits were intended to get soil samples for possibly installing a filtration system. During the work, it was noted by MassDOT that in one of the test pits, “a petroleum-based odor was noted, and the presence of a black, wet, sandy material was observed at approximately 110 inches (9 feet, 2 inches) below existing grade,” the letter from Lavallee stated. 

Contractors, Lavallee writes, did not collect soil samples because they were “assessing for geotechnical purposes (stormwater infiltration), and [were] not prepared to assess

for environmental impacts.”

Lavalle further writes that the state will not be advancing the design of drainage improvements until Tisbury completes an assessment of the soil. Depending on what is found, the town could have to conduct required remediation to fully address the identified impacts, if the infiltration project is to move forward.

Grande says that he has crafted language for a town meeting article that will go before voters at the upcoming spring town meeting that will ask for funding to investigate the extent of the contaminated soil. If there is widespread contamination on the site, the town would also have to pay for mitigation. And that could be a lengthy process before the state even returns.

State officials, in the correspondence with the town, did not indicate where the contamination might have come from. But town officials have said that it could be from auto dealers and boatyards that used to operate in Vineyard Haven. Ben Robinson, Tisbury planning board chair and representative on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, says there have been other soil samples taken around the town that have revealed similar contamination.

Robinson said that regarding the water filtration plan and the lack of progress from the state, he has lost hope that the state will follow through with a meaningful, comprehensive plan. Instead, he is working with the MVC to come up with a more “holistic” approach for solutions that will have lasting impacts not just at Five Corners, but the whole area and beyond.

In a meeting with Tisbury business owners last month, he said that the MVC has applied for a $700,000 Island-wide resiliency grant to study planning opportunities at Vineyard Haven Harbor, Menemsha Harbor, and the road from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs, along State Beach.

Robinson said that with climate change and infrastructure that is built so close to sea level, it’s a complex issue that requires more than a piecemeal approach.

While the drainage projects seem to have stalled, MassDOT has also been working on a separate traffic and flooding study for Five Corners. For the so-called “Martha’s Vineyard Beach Road Study,” the state hosted a public hearing in December to solicit feedback from residents. So far, they have just presented the existing conditions: that the five-way intersection is tricky to navigate, and there are issues with flooding. The state is expected to present options for improvements this spring.

Grande is hopeful that the road project will be more inclusive, and could address the outfall pipe issues.

Asked for more information on when conceptional designs may be forthcoming, John Goggin with the communications office for MassDOT issued a written response to The Times. “The Five Corners area is directly on the coast, and most of the area has a very low elevation,” the email states. “There is regular flooding, which is projected to worsen as sea levels rise and storms become more frequent and intense. 

“Consequently, MassDOT is aiming to develop flood adaptation measures that address near-term flooding and mitigate flooding in the area such that routes are still passable during emergency events (i.e. to maintain access to the ferry terminal and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital). There are a variety of flood adaptation measures under consideration: elevation changes to roads, paths, and sidewalks, new and improved drainage infrastructure, and green infrastructure and nature-based solutions.”


    • It probably came from the auto repair shop that was there… not everything is contaminated from AFF foam… the Dukes County garage was there long before ..

  1. How hard can it be to extend that outfall pipe
    another 50 ft out into the harbor and get it out
    of the sand ?

    • We should avoid pumping anything directly into the harbor. If there is a plan to fix this issue, then the plan should be, as stated, that it should be diverted into a filtration system. Diverting any runoff from directly from a street is just putting contaminants into the harbor. If you are going to fix the problem, then fix the problem and do it correctly. This outfall pipe is filled with polluted material, likely oil, now you want to pump it into the harbor? NOT A GOOD IDEA.

      • Patrick– You know, not all the rain that falls
        on M.V winds up in 5 corners. Do you propose that
        we put in filtration systems at every spot
        where rain water can get into the harbor ?
        Sounds kind of expensive to me. Given that is
        seems the main source of the pollution
        would be oil and other nasty stuff that comes from
        cars and trucks, I actually think it would be cheaper
        for the government to ban gas powered cars and give
        an electric car to everyone who currently has
        a gas powered one.
        In the meantime, water sits in 5 corners for a while
        and then gets into the harbor.

        • Don, sometimes I am surprised by your responses. You seem to be missing my point here. If, and I guess at this point it is a big IF, you are going to try to find a solution for the 5 corners flooding, part of the plan should NOT include diverting unfiltered water into the harbor. IF you are going to spend our money, find a solution that will increase the harbor water quality, not decrease it. Yes, we agree that currently unfiltered water is likely ending up in the harbor, why would you not try to fix this if you are going to try to fix the problem there anyway? I am not suggesting this all over the island, and you know that, I am suggesting that, with the issue we currently have at 5 corners, fix it with a solution that does not include pumping unfiltered water into the harbor. Heck, OB pumps water from the treatment plant back to Ocean Park to water the grass. VH needs to start to fix the problem that they have been ignoring for decades with a plan that actually will do some good….and also fix the traffic issue there that they have been ignoring for decades too. Tisbury wants to involve themselves in issues across the island in other towns but ignore the ones in their own back yard. Let me vote on a non-binding resolution for Tisbury to actually do something.

  2. The flooding caused by too much rain coming down the hill from higher up is a minor problem, compared to the increasingly frequent massive flooding of the calm ocean water rising all the way up to the post office parking lot. That is scary, and there’s nothing we canT do to stop the ocean rising. The only way to deal with that flooding is to raise the roads and the buildings. The steamship building and vehicle staging area are good for a few more years, but many buildings need to be raised.
    This would be relatively straight forward and perhaps less costly than we fear, because it does not entail transporting them along roads.
    The building by the boat yard on Lagoon Pond Road, raised up on wooden pilings, is a good example of what can be done.
    And stop wasting time and money talking with off-island companies. Look at the shamefully bad work they did and are still doing on our schools, libraries, senior centers, fire stations. We could do it so much better, and for less than half the cost.

    • Re “The flooding caused by too much rain coming down the hill from higher up is a minor problem, compared to the increasingly frequent massive flooding of the calm ocean water rising all the way up to the post office parking lot”

      “Calm ocean water” does not flood Five Corners.

      There were very heavy rainfalls on at least two weekends in March when Five Corners did not get flooded. I noted this, because on those occasions I had to drive to OB. There were some big puddles elsewhere on Beach Road, but FX was not flooded.

      This was, IMO, because the rainfalls were not part of nor’easters but were just heavy rainstorms with no wind driving water from the harbor into the land. The timing of high tide of course also affects flooding in from the harbor.

      As for the outflow pipe, what is the diff if the water is flowing direct from streets into the harbor, or is being carried there after storm flooding, and having the same water flow out into the harbor via an outflow pipe?

      • Katherine– to answer your question about what is the diff
        concerning the outfall pipe is that the water will in most cases
        drain more quickly. it will of course not prevent flooding when the
        tide is high, but the end of it it is likely a foot or so lower than
        the elevation of 5 corners and the floodwaters will drain more
        quickly when the storm subsides. Every little bit helps.

  3. It’s been known for years that the soil at 5 corners is contaminated. Soil test back a few years ago confirmed this.
    Looking at this area from when they first started filling in of Bass Creek and the subsequent development of Water St, Beach Rd, Beach Rd and Lagoon Pond Rd, then further research finds that there had been, fuel pumps there, and a car dealership in the existing gray building, lets not forget this area has been an active harbor, with no environmental thinking from back at least150 years. It makes perfect sense the whole are is contaminated.
    So what to do now is the question. Let’s hope that the town and state governments find and proceed with amicable solutions if there are any.
    Keep us informed

    • Dana — we could start by not continuing to pollute
      the area. It seems we have figured out to regulate
      industrial chemicals fairly well, but as we saw with the
      turf debate, some people still don’t get that prevention
      is better than the cure.

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