May 13, 2023 • In the News

CHELSEA — How is it possible, in 2023, for heaven’s sake, that lead paint is raining down on Chelsea?

“Look at this, and this,” said longtime resident Tony Hernandez, picking up a paint chip the size of a Ritz cracker. “This is an environmental disaster.”

He stood in a parking lot directly beneath the Tobin Bridge on Thursday morning, cars and trucks rumbling by overhead. The Tobin’s supports were covered in cracked, loose paint — or no paint at all. Apartment buildings lined the parking lot, their backyards, kids’ bikes, and gas grills ready for warm weather.

There were paint chips — toxic lead paint chips — all over.

It was Hernandez who first raised the alarm in February. An immigrant from Cuba, the former union rep spent his whole career painting bridges, including the Tobin from 1979 to 1983. So he knew right away what had happened: A frigid snap, followed by a warmup, had bubbled the paint loose and dropped poisonous green and rust-colored confetti all over the neighborhood. The wind had carried it blocks away — onto gardens, parking spots, porches, and stairs, along the streets, and all over the patio at Restaurante Sabor Especial, by the courthouse. How could this be happening?

Enraged, he told Roseann Bongiovanni at the environmental justice group GreenRoots. This state has been dumping toxic materials on Chelsea for more than a century, so Bongiovanni has seen her share of assaults. But she couldn’t believe this.

“All of us thought, ‘Oh no, it can’t be, the state couldn’t have left lead on the bridge,’” she recalled.

But the city tested the paint chips, and Hernandez was right.

We’ve known for a long time that lead paint is toxic, especially to babies and kids. The explosive 1979 study that first showed even low levels of lead harm kids’ brain development was conducted on children from this very neighborhood. The paint was banned for consumer use in 1978, but continued to be used in public projects until the early 1990s, said Carrie Lavallee, chief engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

But if lead paint is flaking off outside, it will get inside, said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a clinical professor of environmental health at Boston University: Dust will blow through windows; kids and dogs and walkers will carry it onto kitchen floors.

“How are we here in 2023 is exactly the right question to be asking,” Heiger-Bernays said. “These are children ... that don’t need more insults. It just has to stop.”

We are here because the Tobin, like so many bridges in this country, has been woefully under maintained for decades. Since the DOT took it over in 2010, parts of the bridge have been deleaded and improved, but this Chelsea section is not one of them, said Lavallee. That work — a four-year, $100 million project — was supposed to start in the fall. Now it will begin in early summer, she said.

To their credit, state officials acted quickly once Hernandez and Bongiovanni raised the alarm; the new transportation secretary visiting the neighborhood within days. DOT workers spent weeks collecting the paint chips and continue to inspect the area twice a week. They’ve distributed fliers and set up a hot line (857-492-0221) for residents to report debris and other concerns.

Bongiovanni and others have pushed the state to do more: to encase the crumbling paint immediately, offer easy access to blood tests, and apologize to a community still paying for the state’s neglect.

But this goes beyond Chelsea. Lavallee estimates that about 1,500 of the more than 5,000 Massachusetts bridges DOT inspects each year sport at least some lead paint. The state disposes of about 415 tons of the paint and blast debris each year, and that’s just a tiny fraction of what needs removing. She said her department has requested more funding for those projects.

The money is there to finish deleading the Tobin. What has been sorely, outrageously lacking for decades has been urgency.

Meantime, the good people of Chelsea can look up every day at the bridge — and at the paint chips on the ground — and see how little they’ve mattered for so long. They are determined to end that, now.

“I’m not going to stop until this bridge is sandblasted and painted,” Hernandez said. Only a fool would doubt him.