Spill fine to help cleanup efforts for Mystic River

Local advocates for the cleanup of the Mystic River watershed are welcoming the pending infusion of new resources for the effort through the recent sentencing of a firm in a pollution case.

US District Judge Patti B. Saris on April 30 sentenced ExxonMobil Pipeline to pay $6.1 million after the firm pleaded guilty to violating the criminal provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, in connection with a 2006 incident at its Everett oil terminal in which 15,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel and kerosene spilled into the Mystic and Island End rivers. The firm is a wholly owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil.

Under the terms of the sentencing, based on a plea agreement the company reached with prosecutors last December, a good portion of that money could be spent on projects to clean up the 76-square-mile watershed.

"Overall, it's a positive outcome and a victory for the US attorney's office," said EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, noting that it would mean "a significant amount of money" for the watershed.

ExxonMobil was sentenced to pay $179,364 in cleanup costs and a $359,018 fine, and to make two community payments totaling $5.6 million, according to the US attorney's office.

One of those payments is for $1 million to the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to support initiatives to clean up the Mystic River watershed. The other is for $4.6 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act fund for restoration projects in Massachusetts, with preference given to those in the Mystic River watershed.

Khalsa said environmental groups in the watershed, including the Chelsea Green Space and Recreation Committee, Woburn Residents' Environmental Network, and the Mystic River Watershed Association, had pressed to have the bulk of the community payments go to the Mystic River watershed.

He said those efforts resulted in a strengthening of the language in the agreement giving the watershed priority status in the use of the federal trust money, and the set-aside of funding to the state trust, which can fund a wider variety of projects.

The payment to the state trust will be used exclusively for water quality and wetlands projects in the Mystic River watershed, according to trust spokeswoman Catherine Williams.

"The Patrick administration is pleased these funds will be used to protect the Mystic River Watershed," Environment Undersecretary Philip Griffiths said in a statement. "With these funds the Commonwealth, specifically the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, will partner with local communities on water quality and wetland restoration projects so that these waters are preserved for future generations."

Khalsa noted that Saris made clear at the sentencing that she wants to see worthy projects within the Mystic River watershed - and especially projects in the vicinity where the oil release took place - receive funding from the payment to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Local environmental organizations have compiled a list of projects they hope will be considered for funding from the community payments. Among them are restoration of the former Hess petroleum storage site on Chelsea Creek and its dedication for public use. Khalsa said it is also hoped funding could be used to cover the local match for an already permitted US Army Corps restoration project for the Malden River.

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By John Laidler Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2009