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‘We’ve Been Failed Down Here’: Somerset Residents Urge State to Shutter Scrap Metal Operation

Piles of scrap metal await loading onto ships at the Brayton Point Commerce Center.
Courtesy Kathy Souza
Piles of scrap metal await loading onto ships at the Brayton Point Commerce Center.

Some people who live by the beach collect sea glass or driftwood. But Nancy Thomas collects crushed car seats and rusted fenders.

Thomas has lived in Somerset’s Brayton Point neighborhood for more than 50 years. Her house is on the water—Mt. Hope Bay creeps into her yard at high tide. For the past two years, that tide has brought hints of a fight brewing just across the bay at the Brayton Point Commerce Center.

In Thomas’ yard, two plastic bins brim with gnarled scrap metal. “My family thinks it’s crazy to keep it,” she said.

The material began washing up here about two years ago, soon after a St. Louis-based developer, Commercial Development Company, Inc., moved into the Commerce Center and rented out pier space to a scrap metal operation. Thomas hopes her collection will one day provide evidence of environmental violations committed by the company.

Thomas helps lead a movement in Somerset to oppose the company’s scrap business. Residents allege the operation is not only dropping metal into the bay, but also coating the neighborhood with toxic dust and rattling homes with a noise they call “metal thunder.”

“They just cause disruption and chaos,” said Thomas.

Now, Thomas and her fellow activists are calling on Governor Charlie Baker to shut down the scrap metal operation. They point to property records that indicate Commercial Development Company is running part of its business illegally on state-owned land—though Baker has said publicly he’s not sure whether the state in fact owns the parcel. Meanwhile, Thomas says the dust and daily clanging of metal is putting residents’ health at risk.

Oil, coal and scrap

In the early 1900s, the area surrounding Brayton Point was predominantly farmland.

That changed in 1959, when the New England Power Company signed a 99-year lease with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to build and operate a power plant on state-owned land. The contract specifies that the lease is “for use in connection with a power plant.”

The plant quickly became Somerset’s economic lifeblood. At first it burned a mix of oil and coal, before switching exclusively to coal. The power station employed hundreds of full-time workers and provided the town’s biggest chunk of tax revenue.

In 2017, the aging plant shut down. The next year, a Commercial Development Company subsidiary called Brayton Point LLC purchased rights to the site, agreeing to abide by the terms of the original 1959 lease. The company claimed it would redevelop the site to service the burgeoning offshore wind industry. In April 2019, the plant’s two 500-foot cooling towers were demolished.

But offshore wind contracts have been slow to arrive at Brayton Point. Instead, Commercial Development Company has rented out space on the pier to the firms that run the scrap metal operation: Eastern Metal Recycling and Patriot Stevedoring & Logistics. Eastern Metal Recycling trucks in scrap, while Patriot Stevedoring piles it up and loads it onto ships bound for Turkey.

And local residents aren’t happy about it.

Toxic dust and ‘metal thunder’

“Every day we have dust just covering our neighborhoods,” said Thomas. “You can taste it. You can smell it.”

An investigation commissioned by the town of Somerset found the dust billowing off the scrap heap contained mercury and lead.

Kathy Souza, another Brayton Point resident, said some days the dust deters her from walking outside.

But keeping indoors isn't the answer either, as the clash of “metal thunder” rattles residents’ homes. Souza said the clanging goes all night when ships come to port to load scrap. “The noise is brutal down here.”

“We can’t find any relief,” said Thomas. “We're concerned about our young children. We're concerned about our elderly. We're concerned about people getting no sleep.”

Thomas and Souza have turned their frustration into action, organizing residents against Commercial Development Company. Their Facebook group, Save Our Bay Brayton Point, has more than 4,000 members. Souza recently won a seat on the town’s select board, in part thanks to her vocal opposition to the scrap operation.

The group is fighting the company on multiple fronts. They gather drone footage of the operation to document potential legal violations. Somerset has issued cease-and-desist orders to Commercial Development Company and its affiliates. The firms have so far ignored the orders. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the companies $27,000 for dropping scrap metal into Mt. Hope Bay. Souza said the penalty amounts to a mere slap on the wrist for a multi-million-dollar company. “That’s the CEO’s lunch money. That’s nothing.”

In an email statement, Commercial Development Company spokesperson John Kowalik wrote that the firm aims to provide “a base for sustainable economic development, especially for renewable energy and offshore wind operations, which will benefit the Town of Somerset, its neighboring communities, and the entire South Coast. We remain open to a constructive and fact-based dialogue with Somerset neighbors who may raise concerns.” Kowalik added that the company tried to mitigate neighborhood concerns through a recent application to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, but its application was denied. The matter is under litigation in Land Court.

In a separate court action on May 11, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue Brayton Point LLC (the Commercial Development Company affiliate), Patriot Stevedoring & Logistics and Eastern Metal Recycling for potential violations of the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. However, the notice period has ended with no word yet from Healey's office on whether it will follow through with a lawsuit.

Now, as residents await a possible court battle, they’re trying a new approach—taking aim not at the company but at the state of Massachusetts.

Taking ownership?

This week Somerset’s select board delivered a letter to Governor Charlie Baker’s office, demanding that he shutter the scrap operation. The board argued that Massachusetts owns the pier at Brayton Point, and the company’s scrap dealings violate the state’s lease, which specifies “use in connection with a power plant.”

“There is no more coal fired power plant in operation so the lease should be void,” the letter states. It goes on to urge Baker to “hold your tenant to the language of the lease agreement. Stop the illegal port operation and the illegal metal storage operation in our community.”

At last week’s public meeting of Somerset’s select board, chairman Lorne Lawless read the text of the letter aloud. Attendees responded with an ovation.

Despite the property records, Baker has said publicly he’s not convinced the state in fact owns the pier where the company is storing the scrap metal. He hasn’t elaborated on the reasons for his doubt, though he said his administration is looking into the matter.

An internal review by the state’s real estate division appears to provide more certainty. In an email sent to Somerset residents in June, Paul Ford, Deputy Director of the Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance, wrote that the site is indeed under “care and control” of the state.

Residents like Thomas are left wondering when and if the state will assert that control over the scrap operation.

“The whole thing is disheartening,” she said. “We feel like we’ve been failed down here.”

Daniel Ackerman has left CAI.
In his time at the station he reported on the South Coast. He came to the station from Minnesota Public Radio, where he reported on science and the environment. Daniel has produced audio documentaries on a motley mix of topics, from the science of sewage to the history of automobile license plates. He holds a PhD in climate change ecology from the University of Minnesota. Daniel was a 2021-22 Report For America corps member.