Could poison corn left on the floors of Watertown’s salt shed spread poison throughout the town?

Could poisoned corn left on the floors of Watertown’s salt shed spread poison throughout the town?

One Department of Public Works employee, Dan Melanson, a lifelong Watertown resident and DPW employee of 23 years, thinks it might.

“You’re playing Russian roulette with the public, and they don’t know they’re playing,” Melanson said.

Melanson was afraid the poisoned corn, spread throughout the DPW’s salt shed by Waltham-based Waltham Services, could cause poison to leach into the groundwater surrounding the DPW yard, which abuts Victory Field, or into the salt itself. The company had a permit from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to spread the corn.

A clear watermark on the giant pile of salt in the shed suggested water was recently in the shed, and damp salt, with several kernels of corn, covered the shed’s floor.

In response to the piles of corn in the shed, on Sept. 18, Teamsters Local 25, the union covering DPW workers, filed a grievance with the town saying the poisoned corn created “a hazardous work place” that could result in the “potential poisoning of all employees.”

The poisoned corn is a product called Avitrol. Avitrol’s web site says the corn is intended to create a fright reaction in birds but frequently kills them. “There will always be some mortality with Avitrol,” the Avitrol Web site warns. “On some species Avitrol may be used as an avicide.”

Waltham Services thinks differently. “Neither the product, Avitrol, nor the program is intended to be lethal to pigeons,” Waltham Services said in a press release sent out after the TAB’s print deadline Thursday.

Furthermore, Avitrol’s warning label says otherwise. “Birds that react and alarm a flock usually die,” it says.

The product’s warning states explicitly that the corn should not be placed anywhere near water. “Do not apply directly to water, or to areas where surface water is present, or to areas below the mean high water mark,” the warning label reads.

The label said it is a violation of federal law to use the product in a way that goes against the warning label.  In response to the union’s grievance, Superintendent of Public Works Gerry Mee wrote a letter to Town Manager Michael Driscoll.

“Local 25 has filed informal grievances related to pigeon droppings at the DPW Central Motors Bay and the DPW salt shed. The grievances allege that the pigeon droppings pose a health hazard to all the employees,” the letter said.

Town Councilor Angie Kounelis sees the union’s grievance to be more related to the poison spread in the DPW shed. “It’s troubling,” Kounelis said. “We don’t want any town employee to be placed in a situation detrimental to their health.”

Avitrol has been the subject of several health-risk related issues across the country. It’s banned in New York, San Francisco and Great Britain. One particularly gruesome event occurred in Las Vegas in 2003. That year, a Las Vegas family filed a lawsuit against a pest control company and the owners of their apartment building saying they were unwittingly exposed to the poison. Lisa Casey, the mother of three children, became persistently nauseated, experienced menstruation so irregular she required a hysterectomy, and lost 26 pounds in a single month. Her suit claims those were effects of exposure to Avitrol.  

Mee said employees of the DPW and Watertown residents had little to worry about. “The ratio that the state allows is a one-to-nine [poisoned kernel to safe kernel] ratio. Waltham Services is using one-to-20.”

Mee gave the Town Council Tuesday night a different figure. He said Waltham Services was using a one-to-27 poisoned kernel-to-safe kernel ratio.

Furthermore, Mee said, “We didn’t put corn around for people to step in.”

In their press release, Waltham Services said, “This product was not applied to the floor of the ‘salt barn’ during any of the services rendered.”

But photos supplied to the TAB by Melanson throw statements from Mee and Waltham Services into doubt. The photos identify several piles of corn on the floor of the shed: one by the door, two on the left-hand side of the shed by the wall, under the high-water mark, and two on the opposite side of the wall, one of which is still there.

Mee said, “If I hired a professional company, and they did something wrong? They’re responsible. Not me.”

Mee’s memo to Driscoll said explicitly “Waltham Services is not treating the ground areas, and they are not treating the contents of the salt shed.”

Mee told the Town Council the same thing. “I’ve spoken numerous times to Waltham Services, and Waltham Services delivery states the corn is placed on two locations at the DPW facility: inside the salt shed on top of the liquid calcium tank; and also on the roof of the DPW building.”

Waltham Services declined to comment on their work in the DPW yard.

Melanson and Kounelis are worried if any contaminants got into the salt, they could be passed along into the street, eaten by dogs or other pets, tracked throughout Watertown, into peoples’ homes or seep into the groundwater.

“I don’t know if this is an exaggeration, if it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s not possible,” Kounelis said. “There are these ramifications, but we’re being told these ramifications don’t exist.”

Kounelis also said that since November, the DPW has spent $49,000 cleaning up pigeon droppings and keeping the birds out of the shed. The costs covered items including putting spikes on top of a pipe inside the building, and placing wire mesh in front of exposed beams on the sides of the salt shed.

Melanson said if Mee installed a door on the DPW shed, pigeons would not be able to get in, and the salt would be uncontaminated by pigeon droppings and other contaminants that come in on the wind and rain.

Mee said a door would not be possible, citing a verbal price quote he received from an unspecified contractor, to the tune of $84,000. Melanson said a door would be the only way to completely deal with the pigeon problem.

“I’m not happy we’re taking this step, but I do believe we’re spending tax dollars appropriately to address the matter,” Mee said. “I don’t believe it would be appropriate to continue to spend our money cleaning up pigeon feces.”

Town Manager Michael Driscoll did not return calls for comment for this report.