It’s Not That Simple: The Housatonic River cleanup, Part 1

For more than three decades, the EPA has been negotiating with GE toward a goal of cleaning up the Housatonic River. The Rest of River settlement is the latest attempt at fulfilling that goal.

 Part one of a 3-part series.

 If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems. Join us as we look at issues facing Great Barrington and discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

 We both serve on elected boards in Great Barrington but we aren’t here representing those boards or the town. We try not to give opinions, but if we do, they are our own.

This column is a companion to the WSBS (860AM, 94.1FM) radio show, It’s Not That Simple  on the air every other Friday at 9:05AM. Listen to the podcast here

Ed Abrahams is seeking re-election to the Selectboard. Due to the Federal Communication Commission’s Equal Time rule, Ed will be off the air until after the Great Barrington Town Elections on May 12th.

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Municipalities and citizens across southern Berkshire County are still absorbing the February 11th announcement of the Rest of River settlement. As of now, PCBs are in the river with no containment, making their way downstream and into the food chain. The settlement requires General Electric to remove more PCBs from the Housatonic River than the 2016 EPA permit required; it allows the five towns of  Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield to have input into the removal process, GE will give Great Barrington 149 acres of land in Housatonic which was to become a PCB landfill. The sole landfill, located in the old Lee quarry site adjacent to Woods Pond will only contain the lower concentrations of PCBs and be built as if it were to contain the higher concentrations (which will be shipped out of state).

Still, many citizens are angry that there will be even one landfill, that low levels of PCBs will remain in the river, and that there was no public input or debate about the settlement.

In this 3-part series we invite Bryan Olson, Region 1 Director of the Superfund and Emergency Management Division of the EPA, and Chris Rembold, Great Barrington’s Assistant Town Manager and Director of Community Development, to help us explore the history  leading up to this settlement and the legal and scientific constraints on the cleanup process. We will also answer many questions which have been asked at public meetings and on social media.

For decades GE legally dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) into the river. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PCBs are a type of chlorinated hydrocarbon with a consistency ranging from thin, light-colored liquids to yellow or black waxy solids. Because it is non-flammable and chemically stable with a high boiling point and great electrical insulating properties, it was a preferred chemical at GE’s power transformer division, the heart of its Pittsfield facility. PCBs are also a dangerous carcinogen that were banned in 1979.

GE contributed to a thriving economy until the division was shuttered starting in 1986. GE employed as many as 13,000 people before the downsizing began. Its closing put thousands out of work and left buildings standing like phantoms of a roaring past. The abandoned buildings and environmental devastation are what remain of GE’s legacy.

For more than three decades, the EPA has been negotiating with GE toward a goal of cleaning up the Housatonic River. The Rest of River settlement is the latest attempt at fulfilling that goal.

Our guests on “It’s Not That Simple” were Bryan Olson, Region 1 Director of the Superfund and Emergency Management Division of the EPA, and Chris Rembold, Great Barrington Assistant Town Manager and Director of Community Development. Both of them were participants in the mediation process that led to the settlement. We spoke about what’s in store for the present and future of the Housatonic River and its clean up.

Part 1 and part 2 of this series is the interview with Mr. Olson. Part 3 will be the interview with Mr. Rembold.

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It’s Not That Simple (INTS): Bryan, can you briefly explain how we got here starting with the 2016 permit the EPA issued?

Bryan Olson addressing an information session on the river cleanup at Monument Mountain Regional High School

Bryan Olson (BO): Prior to the 2016 permit, we spent many years looking at the risks of the PCBs in the river. We did various investigations, risk assessments, and modeling to try and figure out what the risks were. The 2016 permit is the result of all that work. It is a decision document that says how we are going to clean up the river and what are the techniques we will use: where are we going to dig up the PCBs, where are we going to leave them in place, whether it was the sediment, soils the flood plains. That is basically what the permit does. 

INTS: The permit was issued in 2016 and then appealed.

BO: Yes, the permit was appealed by several parties including GE, some of the environmental groups, the towns, all for different reasons. Some thought we didn’t have enough clean up in the permit, that we weren’t going far enough. GE felt like we were going too far and pressed on the fact that we mandated that the sediments and soils be shipped offsite.

INTS: In the permit, the EPA was forcing GE to ship all of the sediment offsite and out of the Berkshires.

BO: Exactly.

INTS: It is interesting that not just GE appealed the permit.

BO: There were several other appellants. Most of them were saying that we didn’t go far enough on the cleanup. There wasn’t a lot of other discussion except to support the out of state disposal.

INTS: Can you talk about the level of contamination and what can you tell us about what PCBs do?

BO: PCBs are a chronic health risk. When we do a PCB risk assessment we might look at a child’s risk over the course of the first six to eight years of their life. Then, we would look at the next 30 years of their life and assume exposure that is happening every day during that long timeframe. We wouldn’t look at a short time frame because PCBs are not acutely hazardous. They are hazardous in your system because they build up over a long period of time.

 

In the Housatonic River, the biggest problem was that the PCBs were released from the GE plant site, the source of the contamination. The first two miles [of the river, just south of GE] that we already cleaned up, were where there were really high levels.  As you move down the river, PCBs become less and less concentrated. But they are fairly similar in concentration from the plant to Woods Pond about 10 miles downstream. Within that stretch we get levels up to 600 or 700 parts-per-million (ppm) in the samples we’ve taken. We’ve taken many thousands of samples in that river system.

INTS: Do you know what the direct threats PCBs are to humans and to the ecology of this area?

BO: What our risk assessments showed is that PCBs bioaccumulate up through the (human & river) system. So, you get PCBs in sediments and PCBs in small critters at the bottom of the river and get higher and higher [concentrations] as you go up through the food chain. Fish have much higher levels of PCBs than is in the sediment. So, if people are

EPA warning sign to fisherman and hunters posted on the banks of Woods Pond in Lenox Dale.

eating the fish that is an obvious issue.

Also, you may have people living within the floodplain with PCBs in the soils of their backyard, which is an unacceptable risk to us. There is risk to humans by eating the fish or coming in direct contact with the sediment or floodplain soils and significant risk to the environment as a result of the bioaccumulation up the food chain. For example, the fish are eaten by the Bald Eagles and other birds of prey and that’s where the environmental problems come in.

(Learn more about PCBs here and here.)

INTS: So, the permit was appealed. To be clear, it was not appealed to a district of federal court, but to the EPAs Environmental Appeals Board (EAB).

BO: Right. There is an appeal process within EPA. Once that process is over there is the ability to go to the district court as well but we go through that (EAB) process first. So, when we got through the appeal process we basically won every part of the appeal including the cleanup parts both from the GE side and the public side. The EAB said we made the right cleanup decision but questioned our offsite disposal decision. In the statute there are 8 or 9 criteria we must meet in order to make a cleanup decision like this one. For example, one is cost and one is protectiveness. So, what the EAB said is that we haven’t justified this extra $200 million to send this out of state as it relates to protectiveness and the difference between the two alternatives (local storage or out of state disposal). So, that was a blow to our case but as a result we decided to remand the EAB decision on one track and on another we were going to look for a better solution.

INTS: We got through the appeal. Why did we have to go into mediation?

BO: We always look for a compromised, mediated solution if there is one to be had. In this case, the EAB decision was an important factor for us. We had to look at it and assess the risks of moving forward and potentially losing.

INTS: So, if the appeal were taken to court there was a risk of losing all of the benefits of the cleanup plan?

BO: If we’d have won, we’d have all the material shipped out of town, but we would have none of the enhancements we have now and no benefits to the towns. If we’d lost the appeal, we’d have three potential new landfills in Berkshire County, we’d have all of the waste. Keep in mind that the mediated settlement had us (EPA) requiring that the worst of the material go offsite…the regulated material would have to go offsite still. We wouldn’t have that benefit. All of the material would stay in the county. There would be no benefits to the towns and we wouldn’t get any extra clean up. That was the risk.

INTS: One question that comes up often is why Mass DEP is not involved?

BO: DEP decided at the beginning of the mediation… to stay on the sidelines and watch to see how it goes. They didn’t want to negotiate what they thought was negotiating against themselves. They didn’t have a direct stake in the permit. We had to make a decision on the permit so EPA had to be involved. They just decided to sit out the mediation themselves. It’s not that they weren’t coordinating with EPA or talking to EPA…They were involved on the outside but not on the inside.

Woods Pond in Lenox Dale, with October Mountain overlooking the far shore.

INTS: Let’s talk about the cleanup. The mediated settlement requires at least 100,000 cubic yards of the most contaminated material to be shipped out of the county to another site. The rest is to be stored in a landfill in Lee. There are also benefits to the five downstream towns and Pittsfield, monetary benefits as well as developmental assistance around the GE site. [GE agreed to give Lenox and Lee $25 million each, Pittsfield $8 million, and the other three towns $1.5 millioin each. Great Barrington also gets 149 acres of land near Rising Pond in Housatonic that GE proposed to use as a dump.] And how long will the cleanup take?

BO: One thing that you missed is the significant additional cleanup and that is really important to EPA. One of our bottomline positions was that if we were going to move forward with some kind of mediated settlement where we might keep some of the low level material on site, we wanted to make sure that GE was going to do more cleanup.

INTS: Is it safe to say that any money GE would have saved from the mediated agreement is being put back into cleaning up the river?

BO: Some of the money, not all of it. If it was all of it. I’m sure GE wouldn’t have signed on. They had to get some benefit out of this too, but we felt we got more environmental benefit out of more cleanup in the river. This is a lot of what we heard from environmental groups in the permit appeal. [There was] a lot of criticism that we were doing lots of capping in the river system, we weren’t removing enough, and potential impacts to neighborhoods. So many of the comments we heard of the appeal we took care of in mediation. It is much enhanced…

To get back to your other question, we’re looking at 13 years of cleanup overall. Over those 13 years, depending on how we sequence it, likely upstream to downstream…you might do a mile in Pittsfield and you’re done with that part of the cleanup…Maybe one year a mile, something like that…We’re trying to get GE to move faster, they want to move faster. They’ve agreed, as part of this new settlement, to start the design process before we even issue a new permit. That could save us a year or more in terms of getting in the river and cleaning it up.

INTS: But the activity around the dump will be constant.

BO: Yes.

INTS: Why was the site in Lee chosen?

BO: The two choices from the original permit were onsite disposal versus offsite disposal. GE had three properties that were considered on site, close to the river, and only one of them was directly adjacent to the most contaminated part of the river and was actually up and out of the river floodplain. So, it had those two benefits.

INTS: Up and out because it’s higher?

Rising Pond in Housatonic, where PCBs accumulated behind the Rising Paper dam.

BO: It’s much higher. For example, the location in Great Barrington at Rising Pond is in the floodplain. So, we’d have to do certain things to protect that. We’d talked about Lee having 15 feet between the bottom of the landfill and the water table. That couldn’t happen at the Great Barrington site. Also, about 40 percent of the material is within a couple of miles of the location of the Lee site; 25 percent of it is literally right next to it in Woods Pond.

INTS: That will help limit some of the truck traffic.

BO: Exactly. We are actually talking about pumping the material so we would have no truck traffic.

INTS: Can you tell us a little about dredging and what happens to PCBs during dredging?

BO: It depends on what type of dredging we are doing. If we are doing the hydraulic dredging we just spoke about (pumping), the sediments are basically vacuumed up and they go through a pipeline directly to the location where it would be de-watered and then either sent off site or kept on site depending on how high the levels were. If we’re doing more conventional dredging it’s like a normal excavating operation where you would remove the sediment from the river, put it somewhere close to the river where you can de-water it and then transport it to wherever it’s going to end up. It’s not that sophisticated, actually. It’s a fairly routine operation. The difficulty, or the art of it, as opposed to the engineering part of it, is restoring [the river] to the way it is now. That is something we will spend a lot of time and money on to make sure we get it right.

INTS: But what happens to the PCBs? Do they get released into the air? into the atmosphere? What happens to them when they are dug out?

BO: There is relatively low volatilization of PCBs into the air, but we still sample the air during the work. We’ll set health base levels in that air sampling so if we trigger a health base level while doing the work we’ll shut it down. We’ve done lots of jobs like this. We don’t expect that to happen. We have a lot of experience from around New England and in Pittsfield as well. We do air sampling for PCBs and also particulates. You don’t want dust in the air, you want to keep it wet so it doesn’t get into the air. But as I said earlier, the PCBs are not acutely hazardous. So, the key for us is to get it out of this uncontrolled river system and put it some place where there won’t be any air emissions coming out of a controlled landfill type situation.

INTS: One thing that wasn’t clear at the Rest of River meeting we had in Great Barrington was about the monitoring of the process. Many people felt that it was GE that was going to be doing the monitoring; but, in fact, it will be EPA doing the monitoring?

BO: It will probably be both. Because it is expensive to do the monitoring we will require GE to do it and we will also be doing it to check their work. That’s the way it works at almost all of our sites where there is a responsible party. We will do monitoring on top of their monitoring. We don’t want the taxpayers paying for all that monitoring, but we want to make sure it’s right as well.

INTS: Let me ask you some questions that we have received from the community. One question was about the idea that only two-thirds of the PCBs were going to be removed. Is that right?

BO: I don’t know where that calculation came from. When we are all done with this, the actual clean up part of it…we pick a clean up level that is safe for residents and for people using the river…there is a level below which it is okay to leave it behind and that is the same with every single site we work on… There is a percentage of PCBs left in the floodplain that are absolutely okay. In terms of any PCBs that are left that are creating a risk…I don’t know the percentages but a vast majority of them are coming out. It’s a little bit of a trick question because some of the PCBs are not a problem. There is not such a thing, especially in this system, of no PCBs.

INTS: So, the remediation in this area is going to be to the point where it remains safe.

BO: Right. There is one exception to that and the area is small. There are some areas where the experts from Massachusetts and some of our experts looked at the habitats in the areas [and want to preserve them]. For example, if there are areas that have certain types of endangered plant species, we might want to keep those small areas despite the fact that there might be some PCBs in there, because we don’t want to ruin it forever. We’ll make a judgment in some areas where it will be okay to keep some PCBs in place. I’m not sure many people disagree with that. It’s relatively confined, small areas up in Pittsfield.

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In part 2 of this three-part series, Mr. Olson will answer additional questions that have been raised about the process and the safety of the Rest of River cleanup plan.

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Listen to our show on WSBS (860AM, 94.1FM) every other Friday at 9:05 AM. Our next show will be on Friday, March 20th.