The first swoop of a back hoe's arm Monday brought cheers and hugs from residents who fought seven years to force a power company to clean up a neighborhood so badly contaminated by arsenic, cyanide and lead that its soil turned blue and orange.
The cleanup work was funded by an $11.5 million legal settlement reached in May with Houston-based Southern Union. State regulators have determined the pollution was created decades ago when the Fall River Gas Co. — now owned by Southern Union — turned coal into gas.
Gail Corvello, 53, one of about 150 residents who sued Southern Union, gathered with several of her neighbors to watch the start of the cleanup at a waterfront property opposite her home on Mount Hope Bay.
"I basically screamed and I hugged everybody that came within 5 feet of me down there, the workers I don't even know," said Corvello, president of a citizens group that pushed for a cleanup and harsher penalties for polluters. "And I was giving all of them hugs because we've waited so long."
Workers will remove several feet of soil at more than 80 contaminated sites, said Courtney Moore, the senior engineer for EnviroLogic, the Londonderry, N.H., firm overseeing the work. Digging should end by Christmas, but landscaping may need to wait until the spring.
Workers discovered the pollution in 2002 while digging a sewer line. Since then, Corvello and her neighbors have found themselves financially trapped.
Homeowners in the working-class neighborhood could not sell their homes because most banks refuse to grant mortgages for contaminated land, which lenders consider worthless as collateral. Getting a home loan to repair a roof or pay for college was just as difficult.
Janice Carroll, 59, said her family wanted to sell a vacant 4-acre lot across from Corvello's home but dropped those plans after learning the soil was tainted. The land, which is getting cleaned, now serves as a local base for EnviroLogic workers.
"We missed one of the biggest real estate booms," Carroll said. "We missed that huge bubble."
Besides losing money, neighbors also lost the right to enjoy their own yards. To protect people from the polluted soil, Tiverton officials banned residents from doing anything that could disturb it, including planting a garden, installing a new mailbox or doing major construction.
Corvello put artificial turf under a wooden swingset to protect the children she watches from the dirt. Still, enrollment has fallen from eight children down to a handful. Just one girl was in her care Monday.
Many parents decide not to send their children to Corvello's home once she tells them about the pollution, she said. She tore down a backyard pool because her own family members feared going back there.
"Who can blame them?" Corvello said. "They don't want to bring their children where they can possibly be exposed to something dangerous to their health."