Lenox — It was either “no action,” or anywhere up to 52 years of action, to the tune of almost a billion dollars.
Those were the range of options confronting General Electric after the company signed a Consent Decree in 2000, under threat of having its former Pittsfield transformer manufacturing complex declared a Super Fund site, to clean up the toxic PCBs it had dumped into the Housatonic River for 45 years, polluting the waterway, banks and floodplains from its Pittsfield facility all the way through Connecticut, down to Long Island Sound.
By 2008, two miles of river had been cleaned up in Pittsfield, from shuttered manufacturing complex on East Street to the confluence of the East and West branches of the Housatonic River at Fred Garner Park.
Since then, the EPA, in consultation with the state Department of Environmental Protection, has been preparing a remedy for the river south of Pittsfield – the so-called “Rest of the River” — where it winds in oxbows through a wildlife preserve and swells into ponds behind dams, on its way to the ocean.
GE would have preferred the “no action” approach – indeed, it tried that gambit — but the EPA, taking 12,000 samples of river sediment, and finding the river’s PCB levels an unacceptable threat to the food chain and human health, said the “no action” plan was not an option.
The EPA’s proposal for the “Rest of River,” announced in June, calls for a 13-year program to dredge, remove and dispose of contaminated soils, cap some areas, and simply monitor others. The work would result in the removal of only 25 percent of all PCBs at a cost to General Electric of $613 million, including disposal fees.
GE has not yet made a counter-proposal, and eventually may balk, making legal appeals to stall or even to prevent the cleanup altogether.
As the public comment deadline for the EPA’s “Rest of River” remedy approaches, the Board of Selectmen met last week at the historic Railway Station in Lenox Dale to review the EPA’s proposal and its implications for the town, give town residents a voice in the process, and to gather ideas for their own comments to the EPA.
Although the deadline for comments by town officials and residents has been pushed back to October 27 from the original October 1 date, selectmen convened nevertheless, choosing the rail station, a few yards across the tracks from Woods Pond, to mull over its responses to the EPA’s proposed remedy. Chairman Channing Gibson referred to the massive scale, range and impact of the cleanup as “a big deal.”
Lenox is home to a roughly 5-mile stretch of river and floodplains that are part of the most contaminated section to be remediated under this proposal. The EPA estimates that the stretch from Pittsfield to the Woods Pond dam contains “approximately 90 percent of the mass of PCBs that remain in the river system.”
GE contaminated the river with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by releasing waste from its 254-acre Pittsfield plant from 1932 to 1977. PCBs, the key ingredient in Monsanto Chemical Company’s pyranol oil used as a cooling fluid in the electrical transformers manufactured by General Electric, are known carcinogens, as well as reproductive and immune disrupters. PCBs have entered the food chain within and around the river’s ecosystem. They are a chronic threat to those who ingest food grown in floodplain soil.
The manufacturing of PCBs was officially banned in the United States in 1979.
Yet low levels of PCBs are still being released from the Pittsfield facility, having so thoroughly contaminated the area. They are regulated through the Clean Water Act, under a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, a separate EPA program from the river cleanup. According to the EPA, Silver Lake receives “stormwater outfall” from a section of the GE plant. “Silver Lake drains into the Housatonic River by an underground 48-inch diameter, concrete, culvert pipe located near the intersection of Fenn Street and East Street,” says the EPA’s website.
For some Berkshire residents, the EPA’s proposed $613 million cost to GE doesn’t go far enough.
“I’m in favor of the 52-year plan,” said Lenox resident Ralph Petillo, referring to the upper limit of GE’s initial assessment submitted in 2010. Petillo added that he wanted GE to spend “the billion” on the river.
“Make them clean it all up,” he said.
While many Berkshire residents want to rid the river of PCBs — and make GE suffer, insofar as that is possible — the work may very well be a protracted inconvenience. At the well-attended Lenox meeting, residents expressed concerns both over leaving PCBs alone, and moving them around.
“The EPA wants to make sure its proposal is sound,” said Lauren Gaherty, Senior Planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, “or whether they need to adjust it.”
BRPC is also acting as agent for a consortium of the six river towns affected by the cleanup that has hired the Pawa Law Group to assure communities will be reimbursed for expenses the cleanup may incur.
To outline the decontamination of the Housatonic River environment, Gaherty gave a Power Point presentation, created by the EPA. It described the agency’s proposal, and the consequences of four decades of contamination.
The EPA’s analysis does not paint a pretty picture.
“PCBs are distributed widely along the river and floodplain,” said Gaherty. Every time there is a flood, she added, the contaminated sediment is re-deposited. PCBs have been found in surface soils and as far down as 9 feet, she said.
“PCBs keep getting redistributed throughout the system, back and forth all the time, from riverbed, banks and floodplains,” she added.
Woods Pond, to east, just over the Lenox Dale tracks, traps only around 9 to 13 percent of PCBs, letting around 90 percent run over its dam as waterborne sediment, to be transported downstream. According to the EPA, the Lenox stretch of river, especially Woods Pond, is an ecologically critical area, beloved for its fishing and hunting, and includes approximately 818 acres owned by the state and managed by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. In 2009, these banks and floodplains were designated by the state as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC.
EPA project spokesman Jim Murphy said that some type of cap would have to be installed at Woods Pond, including within the channels, and that it was “up to GE to design a cap that works.” Murphy added that “trying to dig out all the PCBs” wouldn’t be possible.
The “Rest of River” plan involves the total removal of 1 million cubic yards of excavated soils. That means 15,278 truckloads out of the Lenox section of river, and 12,866 truck loads of clean fill back in, said Gaherty.
“We don’t know yet where the trucks are going to come in, where they will leave,” she said. The EPA has recommended that contaminated sediment be removed by rail to a licensed treatment facility.
The state recently purchased the railroad right of way from the Housatonic Railroad, and announced plans to invest $25 million in repairs to track and roadbed, in preparation for a restoration of commuter rail service to New York City. Perhaps not by coincidence, the state’s upgrade of the rail system will benefit General Electric. Should the EPA demand the transport of PCB-laced sludge out of the county by rail, GE would have had to upgrade the tracks to make the rail line safe enough to bear the weight of frequent carloads of sludge.
EPA’s Murphy said that not all the details are in place yet. The EPA, he said, wants to know where the hot spots are, in order to remediate areas posing the highest risk to human health. The EPA wants to know where people spend time around the river, he said, noting that “the river is swimmable, but there are other things. It is not a pristine river.” He said the main threat from PCBs was to the food chain, but that in terms of PCBs, the water was safe for recreation.
Once it is dredged out, several residents wanted to know where the contaminated soil was going to go.
Gaherty said that disposal of contaminated material would go “offsite.” She noted that there were no “licensed facilities in this immediate area.”
GE’s waste from the Hudson River clean up has gone to Texas by rail, said Murphy, as approved landfills for PCB disposal are limited. “For PCBs at certain high levels,” Murphy later said, “there are special facilities, and only a few,” including one in Michigan and another near Niagara Falls.
Selectboard Chair Gibson added that the town was “very committed” to not hosting contaminated sediment.
In its initial response to the cleanup, GE had proposed three Berkshire disposal sites, according to Murphy. One is 100 acres of undeveloped land owned by the company adjacent to Rising Pond in Housatonic, between the river and railroad tracks. Another is near Woods Pond, at an old gravel pit. And the third option proposed by GE, said Murphy, was in Lee, near the Mass Pike.
The EPA shook its head at these options, but Murphy said that the legal process could result in the contamination staying in the Berkshires.
“GE could take us to court over taking it (contamination) out of state. A judge might agree that they shouldn’t have to pay an extra $150 million to take it out,” he explained, in an interview by phone after the meeting.
“We have to inform GE of what our intended decision is, and they could dispute it,” he added.
At the Lenox meeting, Lenox Dale resident Jeffrey Lane expressed worry about transporting “tons of hazardous materials.” He asked the selectboard to make sure emergency management would be prepared.
While some residents were concerned over process, others wondered if the cleanup was truly necessary, given the extended disruption, and anxiety over moving PCBs, which to some may seem like the stirring of sleeping dragons.
Lenox resident Nancy Stoll said she thought the impact of the cleanup would be “a drastic cost for what benefit,” given the 25 percent total PCB removal level. Stoll also expressed concern about disturbing the sediment. She cited data from Berkshire Medical Center’s 2012’s “Report on Cancer,” which reported the lower incidence of cancer in Pittsfield compared to the national average.
In the report, BMC’s Dr. Harvey Zimbler gleefully counters the general perception that Pittsfield is cancer magnet.
In response to Stoll’s concerns about disturbing sediment at Woods Pond, Murphy explained that “a significant amount (of PCBs) will be locked away under the cap.”
“There should be another consideration for how to treat this,” said Bill Loeb of West Stockbridge. Loeb referred to the current bioremediation of the former New England Log Homes site in Great Barrington. The site is contaminated with dioxins and PCPs, which like PCBs, are chlorinated organic compounds designed to resist natural degradation, the very reason they were such effective industrial chemicals. He asked whether less invasive alternatives might be considered, “especially at Woods Pond.”
The EPA’s proposal suggests using Woods Pond as a “catch basin” for PCB contaminated sediment that now moves down river.
Dr. Peter deFur of Environmental Stewardship Concepts in Henrico, Va., and a consultant to the environmental watchdog organization, Housatonic River Initiative, says the EPA’s proposal has “severe shortcomings,” including using the Pond as a “catch basin.”
“EPA provides no rationale for why this would be an acceptable area to allow PCBs to concentrate,” he said. “The need for such a ‘catch basin’ is largely a response to inadequate removal up river.”
In a statement criticizing the EPA’s Rest of River proposal, deFur argued that the proposal relies on “outmoded remediation tools such as capping and ‘monitored natural recovery’.” Monitored Natural Recovery (MNR) would leave PCBs in place while monitoring their levels. The EPA has recommended monitored natural recovery approach for the river below Rising Pond, which is to be dredged to remove high PCB concentrations impounded by its dam.
“…It is unclear why the EPA fails to acknowledge options such as bioremediation or sediment washing,” wrote deFur. See www.estewards.com for more on deFur’s position.
But at the Lenox meeting, Murphy said his agency might be flexible.
“People can be confident that we will consider what is out there in terms of new technology,” he said.
Ruth Wheeler of Lenox Dale is one of three homeowners with a house right on the river. She worries about a decline in property values during a messy, noisy cleanup.
Gibson said that the town and the selectmen shared these concerns.
“These are questions we want answered as well, for residents, and for the impacts on the town,” he said.
Concerns about details of the cleanup process aside, there are those who have been championing the cleanup of PCBs for a long time, and know the GE’s modus operandi. They remember a time when it seemed that cancer spread like wildfire through Pittsfield.
Pittsfield resident Barbara Cianfarini of Citizens for PCB Removal, has worked tirelessly for years to get GE to do the right thing. She took issue with the BMC cancer report cited by Stoll, indicating what, to Pittsfield residents, were obvious cancer clusters over the years in Pittsfield’s Lakewood neighborhood. Cianfarini once lived in Lakewood, and her husband Charlie grew up there. The neighborhood is located adjacent to the Housatonic River as it winds its way through the GE transformer manufacturing complex. Silver Lake, nestled next to the former GE facility, was so polluted that at times it wouldn’t freeze in winter, and once caught fire and burned for days.
Cianfarini referred to the unfairness of laws that have coddled economic giants like GE. “We’re all on the hook for contamination on our own property,” said Cianfarini, “even if it was an accident or we didn’t know about it.”
Like Petillo, Cianfarini would love for GE to spring for the billion-dollar plan.
“This is our one chance to get this done now on GE’s dime,” Cianfarini said of the EPA’s proposal. “If we don’t, it will be on our dime.”
Charlie Champerini, also of Citizens for PCB Removal, observed that although the cleanup will take more than a decade to complete, “it won’t last forever, but it needs to be done for the good of everybody.”
Selectmen and life-long Lenox resident Dave Roche invoked the concept of an environmental legacy.
“Let’s leave something better for our children,” he said. Still, he did not minimize the potential for an economic impact on the town, which, he said depends on tourism.
Chairman Gibson said that the selectboard would actively engage in the process to insure a good outcome for Lenox, noting that they would consult with the BRPC and legal counsel. He said he hoped that the “compromises when they come, won’t be too onerous.”
Selectman Ken Fowler said he was committed to the cleanup.
“It’s affected me personally,” he added.
And in a quiet voice that seemed to stop every heart in the room, Fowler said that he grew up Lakewood. “And both my grandparents had cancer.”
In response to several requests for extension, public comments on the Draft Permit will also be accepted through October 27.
Written comments on the proposed cleanup plan can be transmitted to EPA on or before Monday, October 27, in one of three ways:
Via email to email@example.com
Via fax at 617-918-0028
Or mail comments, postmarked no later than Monday, October 27, 2014 to: Dean Tagliaferro EPA New England c/o Weston Solutions 10 Lyman Street, Suite 2 Pittsfield, MA 01201