EDITORIAL: What’s behind the DEP’s about-face on bioremediation?

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By Monday, Aug 3 Viewpoints  4 Comments

A scientist-entrepreneur is trying to try a promising new technique for clearing soil of toxic industrial pollutants on the old New England Log Homes site in Great Barrington, but the state Department of Environmental Protection has stopped the experiment, demanding advance proof that it will work.

The site was minimally treated last year, but the work was stopped after residents complained about the smell. Biotech Restorations pleaded with the DEP to let it turn the soil, saying that would make the odor go away because the experimental “factor” requires oxygen to work, but the agency refused. Heavy rains made the smell even worse, but eventually it did go away by itself and now there is a field of rye grass surrounded by fencing, which is an improvement on what was there before but not much.

In May Biotech asked DEP for permission to try another application of its “Factor” this summer, but the agency demanded more soil testing and an agreement on “analyses and methodology” before that could be allowed. Since the process wasn’t completed last year, it’s not clear what those tests will show. It’s also hard to understand why there isn’t already an agreement on analyses and methodology between the applicant and the DEP, which presumably has sampled the Factor and knows what’s in it, seeing as it initially approved its use across the street from houses where people live.

The objectives here are transparent and understandable. Local officials want to reclaim this centrally located but blighted parcel of land no sane developer would touch with a 10-foot pole; there are plans for a $40 million expansion of the town’s commercial district on these 8 acres next to the Housatonic River. The Community Development Corporation holds title to the site and has nearly $2 million in state economic development grants ready to spend on the cleanup.

Biotech Restorations President Christopher Young obviously wants to see his process and his Factor become the industry standard for decontamination of sites polluted by toxic organic compounds, like dioxins and PCBs, and to become a wealthy man in the process. As an independent in a field dominated by huge corporate players, he needs to make sure nobody steals his secret formula so he is leery of submitting it for peer review without guarantees that he won’t lose his proprietary interests. Is he a fly-by-night operator? Lots of people seem to take him very seriously.

By contrast, DEP officials are not doing a great job of explaining their actions and judgments to the world outside. First, they approve the experiment and another state agency grants money to fund it. Now they turn around and stop it before it has a chance to work. It’s almost as if they don’t want it to work.

Any time a state agency performs such an abrupt about face, it’s reasonable to suspect the presence of an unseen actor. Who got to the DEP? Was it the upset neighbors? Couldn’t be. They’d have to operate in the open, form a citizens group, become interveners in a public process.

No, these are the tracks of a much larger animal.

Consider this: the Log Homes site has another neighbor, the Housatonic River, which as we all know is the special responsibility of a certain Fortune 500 corporation. In the course of its upriver operations said corporation deposited many, many million molecules of pollutants into the river. The exact cost of this corporate responsibility is not clear at this time, but it could be big enough to damage even the mighty bottom line of the corporation, which we will refer to as You Know Who. YKW employs an army of lawyers and lobbyists who have, in the past, demonstrated a remarkable degree of influence over the Massachusetts DEP. It took an intervention by bigger, badder bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., to induce YKW to sign a consent decree and clean up the most toxic parts of the river by its former plant in Pittsfield.

The visible pieces of this puzzle would seem to indicate that there is more at stake here than the fate of a piece of commercial real estate in Great Barrington, but we are left with more questions than answers. Why is the DEP halting the experiment, which EPA officials are following with great interest. What interest does YKW have in the success or failure of the experiment? YKW, which employs scientists of its own, has done its own experiments in bioremediation in the Housatonic River, but not much is known about the results. Did Chris Young stumble on a secret that has eluded a generation of YKW chemists?

We’ll just have to wait and see, as the weeds grow tall around the hurricane fencing.

— D.B.

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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. GMHeller says:

    D.B., Methinks you’re letting Berkshire paranoia get the best of ye.
    My guess is that MDEP did not want Biotech to turn the soil because the agency was concerned that by doing so dioxins or other chemical nasties might be brought to the surface which come late summer or fall would finally dry, turn to dust , and be carried on the wind to points all over the surrounding neighborhood.
    Would you counsel turning soil you suspected of being highly carcinogenic and exposing your neighbors?
    Just as well, though.
    If Biotech’s experimental process cannot deal with the reality of hostile Berkshire weather, then it likely would never have worked in this locale.
    The results, if the product works, would likely be better in a drier locale less prone to flooding.
    Better for le experimente grande that it should take place somewhere more conducive weather-wise than these here parts.
    So is there any way to get back the $2 million in grants?
    Has it all been spent?
    Is there a Plan B for the New England Log Homes site?

  2. Luke Pryjma says:

    Life is happening whether you turn the soil or not. Dioxins are traveling all the time. They are in the fat molecules of earthworms, tree bark, beetles and bacteria. I only hope what Biotech has to turn into the soil is more alive than could possibly be imagined and that they use many ways to enliven the soil. That’s what would be needed to thrive in a contaminated environment. What could come out of this remediation could be epic. This is in-sito treatment. This runs counter to the paradigm that brought us PCB’s and dioxins. Basically, we could support life to help life. Sounds innocuous but it is wildly outside of the consciousness of us versus them thinking that created the mess. The same corporation brought us Round-up. Round-up “rounds” up the minerals that are essential for life. In doing so all life that touches it is worse off for 22 years, maybe longer. Life was seen as a problem and Round-up the cure for unwanted life. Now we are faced with the tail end of this thinking. What if something was created that was so against life that parts per billion shut down natural systems? What if we spill it into our land and rivers? Welcome dioxins and PCBs. What Biotech is trying to usher in is ground breaking. What if we work to support microbes to do the work of breaking down chemicals for us? You mean we wouldn’t need another chemical to bind this chemical? We wouldn’t need a physical barrier? What would this mean for cancer treatment or invasives? Could we just work with these pioneers of harsh terrain to make it better? Instead of chopping, radiating, or poisoning? Is all that is needed is a deep understanding of the nature of life in the hurting context and then work to relieve the pain? Are all pathogens just messengers of imbalance? Biotech invented a gene modification process that overrides a bacteria’s tendency to stop producing enzymes in the face of contaminants. These are super bugs that process highly chlorinated oils like PCBs. Normally, when bacteria run up against PCB’s they can’t produce enzymes. Their tools to digest are taken away. They look like a once thriving factor town: all bodies and no jobs. Sound familiar? Biotech is trying to send in some microbial artists to make art out of the junk that second stage native bugs can flourish on. Sounds risky I know but the other options, those involving fear and high costs are soul sucking. Imagine one day we might be seeding the river with zebra mussels, who filter 7 gallons a day, and inoculate them with Bio-tech bugs and sit back and “watch” the river clean itself. I want to live in this world, where we support life to make the foundation of more life.

    1. GMHeller says:

      Sounds great, Luke.
      So what do you think is Mass. DEP’s rationale, scientific or otherwise, for stopping Bio-Tech’s experiment in Great Barrington?

  3. Luke Pryjma says:

    Biotech is outside of their paradigm.

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