In the late summer of 1997, 10 underground plumes of groundwater contaminated with various combinations and mixtures of trichloroethene, perchloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, ethylene dibromide, phosphate, and nitrate flowed silently and ominously south and southwest into Falmouth from the Massachusetts Military Reservation.
One of Falmouth’s drinking water wells in Ashumet Valley was shut down. Contaminated water threatened more wells and the cranberry bogs along the Coonamessett and Backus rivers. Trust in the Otis Air National Guard Base and Camp Edwards, where the contamination originated, was at an all-time low. The massive, billion-dollar pump-and-treat cleanup of Falmouth’s groundwater under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program—that continues to this day—was just getting started.
In that contentious time, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which owns most of the approximately 22,000 acres of land that is now called Joint Base Cape Cod, set up what it called a Community Working Group to work out an agreement about what activities could be compatible with watershed protection. It was an attempt to revamp base oversight and rebuild trust in its management.
Into that fray, and onto the working group of 22 civilian and military members, stepped Virginia Valiela—then on the select board—to represent the Town of Falmouth, its water, and its environment.
Barely one year later, the working group reached a remarkable consensus: “The Community Working Group recommends the permanent protection and coordinated management plans for water supply, wildlife and open space in the northern 15,000 acres of the Massachusetts Military Reservation.” The resolution carried unanimously.
That milestone—and the tremendous good it has done for Falmouth and its water in the succeeding years—had Virginia’s hands all over it. As she did over and over, she came prepared, she brought facts to the table, she respected all sides, she put herself in others’ shoes, and she strived for broad agreement.
Working group chair Mimi McConnell years later summed up the CWG’s achievement this way: “The mutual respect that marked our work united us all as we worked out solutions that serve both the military and the public’s long-term needs.”
Virginia believed in the power of government to solve problems. She never lost her optimism for its ability to do just that.
Again and again, Virginia jumped in to tackle Falmouth’s most-contentious water issues. In the late 2000s she chaired the Coonamessett River Working Group. In more recent years she was a stalwart and hugely knowledgeable member of the Water Quality Management Committee. The sphere of respect, goodwill, and trust in government that Virginia strived to create is a critical legacy for Falmouth—and one that will need constant nurturing by both competent public servants and an engaged public.
My life intersected Virginia’s in many ways since those days of advocacy for base cleanup and watershed protection. As a citizen, as president of FACES (now Falmouth Water Stewards), as a founding member of the Coonamessett River Trust, a member of the Buzzards Bay Coalition board, and as a scientist studying regional water quality.
We more than occasionally disagreed on the specifics or timing of water-related policies. But I think we agreed on two fundamental things: The first was that arguments based on facts matter—and that the better prepared, more persistent, and clear you are in presenting those arguments the more likely you are to ultimately win the day. The second is more personal. Virginia to me was a model for how digging in on local issues, and acting based on a deep love of place, can bring great personal satisfaction and fulfillment to life. She demonstrated that one’s outlook should never be so “global” that it fills up all the time and space in one’s week, some of which could be effectively—and rewardingly—spent trying to solve environmental problems close to home.