Corporate Neglect in MA: Company Running the Lawrence Canals Won’t Clean Up Its Mess

Rafael Mares | @RafaelMares2

This is the second blog in a series on issues surrounding the dilapidated canal infrastructure in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Look for more from Rafael Mares in the coming days. To stay up to date, visit www.clf.org/blog/tag/lawrence-canals-series or follow the hashtag #RestoreLawrenceCanals on Twitter.

CLF is working with partners in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to save the city’s historic canals from decades of neglect and decay. The goal: to transform North and South Canals and the surrounding areas from an environmental burden into community assets so that they can help rather than hinder economic development in the struggling city.

But we won’t get very far unless the canals’ current owner, Enel Green Power North America Inc., gets on board. And, so far, Enel has seemed more intent on being part of the problem, rather than the solution.

It’s Somebody Else’s Problem

“I’m the first one to admit it, my brother did it,” is the chorus of a song by award-winning children’s music artist Justin Roberts. Roberts could have written this song not just for my children, but also for Enel, the multinational corporation that owns the hydroelectric power plant in Lawrence along with the old canals. This plant benefits from the water flow of the Merrimack River, with which it generates the power it sells, but Enel has done little to maintain the canal infrastructure below the plant’s dam. When approached by anyone regarding the need to maintain and invest in its infrastructure, the corporation usually has the same response – it points the finger at someone else.

The people of Lawrence are getting tired of this routine and have partnered up with CLF to address the problem.

Transforming the historic canal infrastructure from an economic blight into a boon could be accomplished through a variety of ways. The riverbanks along the canal system could be converted into a first-class recreation pathway and segments of the canal could be used for recreational boating. North Canal could be connected to an improved South Canal through a trail. And, with sufficient water flow through North Canal, supplemental generation of small-scale hydropower could help the city become more energy independent.

Enel’s Years of Denial Have Caused Permanent Damage

Enel has kept the water level of the canals low for decades, though it’s not clear why, since raising the water level could help to prevent further decay. Canals are built to have water in them – just like inactivity can cause your muscles to atrophy, lack of water damages a canal. The walls of a canal are expected to be held up by the weight of the water, for example. They are also meant to be free of vegetation, which cannot grow if the stones are constantly under water. And wooden components of the infrastructure decay if not submerged. As a matter of fact, the whole environment surrounding a canal can dry up and change as a result of insufficient water, causing a whole host of problems.

For decades now, Enel has declined to take responsibility in any significant way for the problems facing Lawrence’s canals. The people who control the purse strings at Enel and its subsidiaries have prioritized short-term savings over long-term maintenance needs. As a result, the company has spent very little money to maintain the canals and instead relied largely on others – our partners at Groundwork Lawrence, the city, and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and more – to pay for limited landscaping, provide recreational opportunities, or pull trash out of North Canal. The consequences of such neglect are visible to everyone in Lawrence: crumbling and leaking canal walls, missing railings, and overgrown vegetation, not to mention the trash overflowing in the canal beds, floating on the little water left, and piling up at the lower locks and other points.

What’s more, after years of refusing to raise the water level of North Canal, Enel in June of 2013 finally gave in to community pressure and attempted to raise the water to its normal and historic levels. But it was too late. Years of neglect led to water leaking into the basements of abutting mill owners. Instead of fixing the problem then, Enel instead came up with endless excuses for why it is not responsible for stopping the leaks. The canals have only deteriorated more in the years since.

Enel Needs to Make a Commitment to the People of Lawrence

A group of community organizations, nearby mill owners, the City of Lawrence, and residents have now partnered up with CLF to take on Enel. We are asking Enel to make up for its years of underinvestment in the canals by funding an independent evaluation of the canal infrastructure. Enel can and should pay for needed repairs and clean up all of the trash that has accumulated.

But the company can’t simply repair the canals only to underfund their ongoing care. Enel also needs to fund regular landscaping, trash collection, and upkeep; open and maintain space for recreational opportunities along the canals; and restore water levels. Finally, Enel needs to show the people of Lawrence that it is a good corporate neighbor by involving the community in a meaningful way throughout this restoration process.

In the final post in our series, I’ll describe how CLF and our partners are holding Enel accountable.

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