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State land deal stalled over cleanup

For years, the nearly 12 acres of Watertown land lay fallow and off-limits to the public. The Army Corps of Engineers was on the verge of turning over control of the land to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, when those plans were abruptly halted late last month by local state legislators, after environmental activists argued the soil had not been thoroughly cleaned of toxic waste.

Activist Susan Falkoff, who heads a citizen advisory board on the matter, said she was initially alarmed to hear that the department appeared ready to move ahead with the ownership transfer without seeing the results of a $100,000 study. The study was funded by a state grant acquired by Representative Rachel Kaprielian, a Watertown Democrat.

A July 25 deadline for beginning the transfer process, set by the state Department of Environmental Protection, prompted the latest flurry of activity, she said.

The land, on the corner of Arsenal Street and Greenough Boulevard, was once used by the Army to burn depleted uranium from a nuclear reactor at the former Watertown Arsenal. The property has since been cleaned of radioactive material, but other contaminants, including high quantities of lead, have been the target of recent Corps of Engineers cleanup efforts, said Mark Anderson, project manager for the Corps.

The Corps maintains it has done what the law mandates, and is ready to unload the property after several years of cleanup. "This is the finish line for us. We've fulfilled all of our requirements," said Anderson. "We don't want it to stagnate and just sit there."

Wendy Fox, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the land is now suitable only for passive recreational use such as walking, but not for athletic fields or a playground where young children would congregate. It's a status unacceptable to the agency, she said, adding that three crumbling old buildings still on the land also must be taken down before the department will agree to a transfer.

"The DCR is not going to take the property until the buildings are gone and it's cleaned up for active recreational use," Fox said. Lawyers for the department are now reviewing the matter and will wait to see the results of the study before taking further action.

The department already owns a nearly 1-acre parcel adjacent to the land, said Fox, who noted the property was originally controlled by the Metropolitan District Commission until the early 1900s, when the federal government took the land for use by the Army.

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.

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