Great Barrington — A pollution cleanup firm says recent soil tests from the former New England Log Homes site show significant reductions in contamination levels after a short-lived bioremediation effort in 2014 that was later aborted by the state.
The firm, Biopath Solutions, says if the state will allow it, it is ready and willing to return to the Bridge Street site and finish the job.
Biotech Restorations, the company that originally entered the contract with Log Homes developer, Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC), did the initial work at the site, and in 2015 licensed its technology to Biopath, a larger New York City/Charlotte, North Carolina-based bioremediation company.
Biopath now says 97 September 2015 soil samples, whittled down to 9, show a 61 percent reduction in dioxin levels in sections of the 8-acre site — mostly abutting Bridge Street — that got a “double dose of ‘factor’,” the protein-based soil addition that helps native bacteria break down the chlorinated organic contaminants. The rest of the soil saw a 34 percent reduction.
“It’s a significant reduction, such that it can’t be attributed to dilution,” said Biopath President Mick Warner, referring to what the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) said was the reason for lower dioxin levels in earlier soil tests.
After the factor was applied in early summer of 2014, and the farming to work it into the soil began, the pilot bioremediation project, the first of its kind anywhere to deal with dioxins and PCPs in place, was halted by MassDEP over odor and dust issues. The project was thwarted by Mother Nature’s wrath — and a few missteps by contractors ––from the beginning. High winds blew the factor around, dusting porches and cars across the street. After the farming got going, record rainfall in July flooded the site, stopping work and causing the soil, with all of its new additions, including fertilizer, to stink. Complaints to MassDEP by a handful of residents who attributed respiratory and other symptoms to the odor — and others who were simply worried — led the agency to stop the project until the odors and dust were found to be harmless. The work briefly continued, since farming the soil was the way to eliminate the odor, but MassDEP shut it down again, saying there wasn’t evidence the pilot program was working, and that there were still lingering public health concerns about the entire revolutionary process.
CDC, which is in the permitting stages of a $45 million mixed use development there, 100 Bridge, went back to its original plan to “cap” or seal off the soil at the site.
Biopath, however, maintains the process is safe, and ultimately safer than capping, which encases the toxic contaminants rather than neutralizing them. Warner says the trouble started because the fieldwork at the site hadn’t been performed properly and the wrong equipment used because the work had been subcontracted. Biopath has its own equipment and expertise to do it right, he says, and to “allay fears by using properly-sized equipment would take care of it.”
“The two concerns are odors and dust,” Warner added. “Dust can be controlled, and odor can be eliminated, and we would do both.”
The company appears to understand it will need to convince not only MassDEP of this, but also some of the site’s neighbors, particularly those who said some adverse symptoms were caused by the odor. The site is surrounded by residential neighborhoods on two sides.
“We will address it in public meetings,” said Biopath spokesperson Ian Bel, who added that the company would spend time in town explaining what had happened in 2014. “There were perimeter monitors around site, and at no time during the treatment, except for that windy day, was there dust that contained any soil. It was only product material and some fertilizer.” He spoke to both MassDEP and residents’ worries that contaminated dust from the soil had gone airborne. He said results from dust monitors showed it had not. CDC’s environmental consultant, Ransom Consulting Engineers and Scientists, asked MassDEP to allow bioremediation to continue.
While the factor passed review and was deemed safe for application by MassDEP and Ransom, according to CDC, it is a proprietary product, and some ingredients are a trade secret, sparking concerns about something nasty lurking in the factor.
Chris Young, the former chemist who invented the technology and licensed it to Biopath said he and Biopath will also “address the proprietary issue in terms of health.”
“There are no carcinogens,” Young said. “We have the data to support that and will provide it.”
“Our objectives are to get the facts straight,” Bel added. “We want to finish the site — we think we can finish the site…we have a strong data-supported position that our effectiveness is clear and on par. We will be present in the community…very transparent.”
According to their website, Biopath cleaned up four brownfields in California — one contaminated with PCBs, three with pesticides. The company is in talks with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and city officials in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to bioremediate the 89-acre superfund site of a former paper mill that left the soil heavily contaminated with PCBs. The company is still updating their website, and their other completed projects have not been added yet, according to Vice President Anne Lerums.
Bench studies in the lab with soil taken from the Log Homes site showed a 99 percent reduction of contaminants, according to Young and Biopath.
Warner says the company can finish cleaning the site, and Young wrote CDC Executive Director Tim Geller in October to give him the test results and discuss revisions to the original contract between him and CDC that would include Biopath.
Young’s former company, Biotech, “is still under contract for work on this site,” Lerums said.
Geller said he could not comment on contract matters, but confirmed that “the testing [Biopath] did in the fall showed a very significant degradation of the contaminants. But MassDEP has the last word.”
Indeed, MassDEP must be convinced that the technology is safe and effective, and spokesperson Catherine Skiba told The Edge the agency cannot respond to hypotheticals without seeing and evaluating this new data.
The CDC originally planned to cap the site, but turned to bioremediation when it learned it was significantly cheaper to clean the soil on site than truck it to one of the few landfills in the country that will accept such contaminants. The CDC also liked the idea of a permanent fix, and a new technology, Geller said.
Warner made a few observations about capping, the only alternative, which MassDEP now recommends, and how it “forever” places restrictions on a piece of land.
“There are all sorts of reasons that you think you can control migration pathways of [contaminants], and at the end of day, if the stuff is there, there’s a risk,” he said. “So by eliminating it, it means unrestricted use of the site — no stigma.”
Noting that a possible anchor store at the 100 Bridge development is the Berkshire Co-op Market, Warner said there is “a clear disconnect of buying your organic food on top of a pile of dioxins. You always have long-term monitoring with caps.” He said capping was a “commitment” of 100 to 1,000 years. “How much can you commit to that?”
“The idea of totally destroying the contamination is just a much better idea, and more affordable.”