Earth removal investigation, sewer contract cancellation up for Town Meeting vote

Apr 13, 2023

Two votes at Town Meeting will concern what is happening beneath Wareham residents’ feet. 

The Select Board is asking residents to vote on whether the town should appropriate $50,000 to hire an engineer to investigate the possibly illegal removal of earth around town by corporations.

Swifts Beach residents are asking residents to vote on whether the town should cancel its contract with an outside firm to replace the sewer line underneath their neighborhood. 

Town Meeting will take place on Monday, April 24 at 7 p.m. in the “cafetorium” of Wareham Elementary School, 63 Minot Ave. 

Select Board member Tricia Wurts said that the earth in Wareham contains a special type of sand that is only found in a handful of locations throughout the world. This sand is used for a variety of industrial purposes, such as construction. Those who remove the earth for non-agricultural purposes must pay the town 25 cents per cubic yard removed. 

Citizens and environmental activists have accused companies of not paying for earth removal and claiming that the removed earth was used for agriculture when it wasn’t.

A.D. Makepeace previously removed 1.3 million cubic yards of earth from its property at 140 Tihonet Road to make way for a Borrego solar field. The company claimed that the earth, worth an estimated $18 million, was put into its cranberry bogs. At the time, it was not made clear whether these bogs were in Wareham or elsewhere.

The Read Custom Soils company, which provides soil to golf courses, sports fields and gardens, is a division of Makepeace.

The Conservation Commission and the Planning Board approved the solar field in 2021, with the latter saying that the earth removal question was up to the Select Board to figure out.

A citizens’ petition calling on the Select Board to measure the amount of earth removed, and calculate how much the town is owed in fees, was overwhelmingly passed at Town Meeting in Fall 2021

In January 2022, the Select Board voted 4-1 “to direct the town to find funds to hire an engineering firm to analyze areas where unauthorized earth removal operations are suspected.”

This would be done by taking aerial photos of the landscape and using topographic maps to determine how much earth has been removed. 

According to then-Select Board member Jim Munise, Town Administrator Derek Sullivan found an engineer to do the investigation, but did not hire them. Town Meeting must approve the use of funds to do the actual hiring. 

In the Swifts Beach neighborhood, the planned replacement of the sewer line has become a drawn-out controversy, inspiring a neighborhood advocacy group to petition for the cancellation of the project. 

When a sewer line on Wankinquoah Avenue collapsed in 2016, the town chose to replace the gravity sewer system with a low-pressure system. At the time, the Sewer Commission, and Water Pollution Control Facility Director Guy Campinha, argued that the replacement was not only the cheapest option, but necessary for the aging sewer system.

The most controversial part of the repair was the news that 130 Swifts Beach homes would have to install sewage-grinding pumps, costing anywhere from $400 to $4,000, at the homeowners’ expense. Several Swifts Beach residents, unable to handle the sudden expense, reportedly had to move out and sell their homes. 

Swifts Beach residents have accused Campinha and the Sewer Commission of lacking transparency and falsely claiming that homeowners would not have to cover the cost of the pumps.

In February, the Sewer Commission decided to delay the repairs until after Labor Day, but advocates said that they would not rest until the project is completely canceled.