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Dust From Highway Project Coating Cars, Homes In Chelsea; Demo Work Keeping Residents Up At Night

CHELSEA (CBS) - It's 1:30 a.m. in Chelsea and Tony Hernandez is doing everything but sleeping. The sounds of jackhammers breaking up concrete along Rt. 1 is keeping him up. And the silica dust it releases coats parked cars like snow.

"There was dust all over the place, there's no accountability," said Hernandez of the incident that took place last Friday. "Here it looks like, in the city of Chelsea, you can dump anything you want here."

Hernandez says he cleans up dust daily and wakes up to demolition work happening at all hours. "There shouldn't be work happening here, in this area, [that's] so populated after 11 p.m., period. I work in four different states, sometimes I have to pull over to take a nap because I can't sleep at night," said Hernandez, a longtime resident of County Road.

Dust chelsea
Dust on car in Chelsea from Tobin Bridge project (WBZ-TV)

Construction on the Tobin Bridge/Chelsea Curves has been underway since 2018. Work first began on the Tobin, then last year, construction geared up on Rt. 1. MassDOT says both structures are over 60 years old and in need of significant repair. The roadway is considered a vital gateway between Boston and communities to the north. It carries over 65,000 people each day. Transportation officials say all mainline work should be wrapped up by the end of this year.

"I want you to see what the Tobin Bridge looks like underneath in Charlestown. And then you come to Chelsea and you see what our side looks like, and it's not even close. It's the tale of two cities," said Chelsea City Council President Roy Avellaneda.

Tobin Bridge roadwork
Tobin Bridge/Chelsea Curves Rehabilitation project (WBZ-TV)

Avellaneda says he's concerned about the possible health impacts from the exposure to high levels of dust. Air quality is already a problem in Chelsea. A 2017 study found air pollution is 20% higher than is deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental activists say the city carries the industrial burden of the region. Thousands of trucks transport food and fuel in and out of the city, daily. Chelsea is home to the New England Produce Center, the largest private wholesale produce market in the country. And all of the fuel needed for jets at Logan Airport is stored along the banks of the Chelsea River.

"It's not only the short term [impact] that we have all of our vehicles and our homes caked in dust. But in the long term I have no idea what this will do to the respiratory systems of those residents who are inadvertently inhaling this," Avellaneda said.

Avellaneda also says that traffic on the Tobin is down by almost half, he feels like the drop in volume would make it easier to implement lane restrictions and conduct demo work during the day.

"End all overnight work. There's no reason, given the traffic counts that we have, that they should be doing this sort of work," Avellaneda said. "When they're jack-hammering, breaking down all that cement and asphalt they should be watering it down at all times, not just during high wind advisory."

MassDOT said it recognizes the impacts on residents in Chelsea. But maintains that "some operations must take place at night due to restrictions on daytime lane takings." The agency said it's aware of last week's incident and is committing to bringing in more wetting equipment to keep the dust from traveling. Officials say they also plan to add weather monitoring to their list of standard working precautions.

You can read the full statement from MassDOT below:

"The Tobin Bridge/Chelsea Curves Rehabilitation project is the name of two, separate, but coordinated repair and rehabilitation jobs, one addressing the Tobin Bridge itself, with the other addressing the Chelsea Viaduct. Collectively, these two structures carry Route 1 over the Mystic River and through Chelsea to where Route 1 meets ground level at County Road. The Tobin Bridge and Chelsea Viaduct together form a crucial part of the Commonwealth's transportation infrastructure particularly with regard to food security as much of the food eaten in New England spends time on one or both structures either coming from or going to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea.

Construction on these two projects has been underway since 2017 when work began on the Tobin Bridge portion. The Chelsea Viaduct portion began in 2019. When completed, all commuters, including riders of the important MBTA Route 111 bus which connects Chelsea to downtown Boston will benefit from a renewed, strengthened structure with a smoother riding surface and fewer maintenance requirements with their attendant traffic impacts. Chelsea residents will no longer have to deal with old paint and rusted metal flaking off the underside of the bridge, and where applicable, the Chelsea Viaduct will be fitted out with a snow fence. This snow fence will have the dual benefit of preventing melt or rain water from being ejected off the structure onto adjacent buildings and reducing the level of road noise experienced by residents living near viaduct. Much the Chelsea Viaduct's steel structure is being replaced with the lead paint that was on the old steel safely removed from Chelsea and processed off-site.

MassDOT recognizes that while this work is of vital importance, it has inevitable impacts on the residents in Chelsea. Work on the Chelsea Viaduct was heavily re-sequenced to push nighttime operations into the project's second year, however, some operations must take place at night due to restrictions on daytime lane takings. Where possible, the project uses noise blankets to shield abutters from noise producing activities, as was done this weekend during a round-the-clock operation which addressed work on the Carter Street off-ramp from Route 1 Southbound. Unfortunately, such protections are not always applicable due to the need to access different parts of the viaduct for rehabilitation.

The project is aware of the incident this past Friday (May 29th) evening when dust from work on the Carter Street off-ramp exited the site and traveled approximately 300 feet back up Route 1. This was due to unforeseen high winds overwhelming the systems used to keep such dust wet. The project has already met with the City of Chelsea to address the issue and will be bringing in additional wetting equipment in an effort to prevent this from happening in the future. We will also be adding weather monitoring to our list of standard working precautions.

The Tobin Bridge/Chelsea Curves Rehabilitation project is vital to the safe mobility of a large portion of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its successful completion will benefit residents of Chelsea, commuters, and freight trucking for years to come. MassDOT and its project team have worked throughout the job to mitigate the impacts of it on Chelsea residents and will continue to do so as we advance this important work."

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

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