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Long-time EPA Community Coordinator – veteran in Housatonic River cleanup – steps down

"At EPA there’s a big morale issue at the staff level. It’s awful. Some employees wouldn’t normally think of leaving, but after two years of this, they wonder what they should do. I was counseling people in their 30s to hunker down for the longer run. But how can the EPA people work for a President who lies every day?” -- Jim Murphy, former Community Involvement Coordinator for Environmental Protection Agency Region 1 that comprises New England

The Berkshire Edge interviewed Jim Murphy following his retirement from EPA in April. Murphy worked on Superfund cleanups in New England throughout his career, and was closely involved with GE’s cleanup of PCBs in the Housatonic River. For more than two decades, Murphy worked closely with community groups and state and local officials. Media outlets, including The Edge, counted on him for timely remediation information. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Q: Congratulations on your retirement from EPA! How long were you there and what was your position?

A: I was with EPA Region I – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – for 22 years in January. I was Community Involvement Coordinator. The official lingo was “Public Affairs Specialist.” I was eventually the lead in that position. It’s what I liked to do and it was my favorite job. I worked on 15 to 20 Superfund sites. You know, those go on for years and years. I got to see a good part of New England based on that. Before I joined EPA, I had already done community organizing, worked for a congressman, and worked for advocacy groups.

Q: What specifically did the job involve?

A: I dealt with the press and local officials. I specialized in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and about a dozen federal facility hazardous waste cleanups.

Q: Didn’t you also work with with community groups, and sometimes individual homeowners.

Jim Murphy talks with concerned residents of Housatonic, Mass.

A: Yes, over the years I must have sat down explaining things in 250 living rooms, talking to local people about different sites. In one complex site, Raymark Industries in Stratford, Connecticut, it took about 10 years before EPA and the community and elected officials could agree on local disposal. I would sit down with people in their living rooms and say, “Do you want to be dead with no resolution of this?”

Q: Stepping back a bit, which of the different Administrations you served under benefitted the environment most, and which the least?

A: Sure, can we go through them briefly? I started in the Clinton years in 1997, so there were close to 4 years there and then 8 years of George W. Bush. Then there were 8 years of the Obama Administration, and now we’re in the Trump era.

The first Regional Administrator I worked under was John DeVillers. He was interested in taking on the big things – a real cowboy type. He was out there working with people in the communities from the start. And he had good political connections. He knew Kennedy and Kerry. He got involved with GE and got the Pittsfield plant cleanup along with the first stretch of the river. He worked on the 4 interconnected Cape cleanups and military site cleanups, and New Bedford Harbor – the largest expenditure for EPA.

Mindy Lubber followed him for about a year after he left. She wasn’t out in the communities much, but she was good at soothing the masses at times.

Then there was Bob Varney under George W. Bush. He was kind of an environmental professional. He didn’t want to rattle any sabers but he didn’t want to lose any ground either. He wanted to hold the line against the companies at the big sites and the military facilities.

It always came up that they were going to chop the pieces out of EPA when the Republicans came in.

A warning sigh posted at Woods Pond in Lenox Dale, Mass.

Varney wanted to do the happy things like hand out big checks at brownfield sites [sites that receive less than a full cleanup, but which are suitable for industrial uses]. But it makes a difference to show up when people are upset. He wanted me to go out to the unhappy community groups, but he wanted to stay away. The Berkshires didn’t see much of him. His attitude with GE was “there’s no problem here; keep walking.”

Curt Spaulding under the Obama administration was really outstanding. John deVillers and Curt Spaulding best grabbed onto the problems of Superfund cleanups in New England and knew how to deal with the companies, like GE.

Then there was Alex Dunne, the first RA under Trump. She really went out of her way to be an ambassador for EPA by building relationships with the communities and with the congressional delegation. Now she’s an assistant administrator in EPA Headquarters in DC, and Deborah Szaro is the Acting Regional Administrator.

Q: What was your most frustrating experience during your EPA years?

A: Well, when new administrations come in there are usually make-work projects, but when the current administration came in, it was particularly frustrating — such a pain in the butt. There were all kinds of changes – the payroll system, the travel contractor, a lot of full-day training requirements, and [requirement for] LEAN business methodology.

They reorganized the Regions so that they look more like EPA Headquarters in DC. We had to put the attorneys together, for instance, the enforcement and regional counsel ones. And the civil rights program and Native American program people all went into different organization charts and reported to different people, making some managers disappear. It wasn’t that people were actually physically moved, but when they reorganize, they have to report up different lines.

And Headquarters wants to see everything – calls, press releases, etc. It retards everything.

You had to ask yourself, “Was all of this intentional? Was it all a more polite way of having EPA do nothing at all?”

In 2016 residents of Great Barrington gathered in Housatonic to protest a proposal to locate a PCB dump along the banks of the river above the Rising Pond dam. Photo: David Scribner

Q: What were the most rewarding experiences that you had during your EPA tenure?

A: Being out in the communities. In the communities, I enjoyed the project teams, the attorneys and the program people. There wasn’t any frustration. We were on teams, in the middle of controversy.

Q: And you enjoyed that?

A: Yes. What I liked the most was empowering people to get along with each other. And I was able to be amused at almost anything.

With this administration, though, the transparency is just not there. People in the communities used to think we were trying to protect the environment and now they’re not sure.

And sites with emerging contaminants and lack of knowledge are always controversial.

Take the PFAs issue – a huge issue in New England. [PFAs are the synthetic chemicals perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl] It’s being examined most at federal facilities because PFAs are used in fire-fighting foam. The Peabody District Attorney has been looking at them.

The former Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and other military bases have water that has PFAs over the EPA advisory levels. A well that supplied water to a day care center was closed due to PFAs contamination in Pease. It’s clear that states will have to have their own [health-based] numbers. EPA has an advisory but not an enforceable numerical level. Citizens are testing the water themselves.

EPA said they’d organize a national conference. Then they changed their minds and said they’d hold conferences in every Regional EPA office. Alex Dunne said Region I would go first. They wanted the Region I conference to be the model for all the other regions.

EPA headquarters in Washington, DC.

All the New England states had a call with EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC. The EPA people said, “Don’t talk to anyone. We’ll control the talking points.”

I was dealing with a lot of difficult people – Trump people.

I advised giving the organization of the conference to community groups in the different states. So the groups went ahead and planned presentations, but then EPA Headquarters said, “No, community people can be on panels, but they can’t give presentations.”

Then EPA Headquarters said, “no media.” I said, “Really?!” After all, local people would do their own recording. There was a lot of paranoia.

When it finally happened last June in Exeter, New Hampshire, there were about 200 people, with at least 50 community representatives there after all. Some gave presentations. And there was media coverage.

Q: That’s an interesting example. It sounds as if it could have gone very wrong, but worked out because of the changes you eventually got.

A: Yes. Turning back to the overview of the Administration, Trump has tried to slow down enforcement in the air and water areas, and is pushing fossil fuels, but luckily the nonprofit organizations have been suing EPA.

But the companies know that the intent to stop enforcement is there.

Q: …and so they think they can stop complying with pollution control requirements because they know they won’t be held accountable?

A: Yes, and at EPA there’s a big morale issue at the staff level. It’s awful. Some employees wouldn’t normally think of leaving, but after two years of this, they wonder what they should do. I was counseling people in their 30s to hunker down for the longer run. But how can the EPA people work for a President who lies every day?

And the agency just isn’t doing its job. The PFAs example is a good one – EPA just isn’t coming up with a number that represents a safe level of PFAs [in drinking water].

And in the communities, they used to think that we were trying to protect the environment. Now they’re not sure. There’s much more distrust now. My job was to dispel distrust. If we made a mistake – we didn’t get there quick enough or we didn’t do a good enough job – my job was to rely on the technical people and the attorneys and get the job done.

Now there’s a different kind of distrust. It’s more general and Trump-influenced rather than site-specific problems. If I were in someone’s yard testing a well, I could tell there was a new level of distrust and paranoia. There just couldn’t be anyone worse than Trump for our work.

Woods Pond in Lenox Dale. Photo: EPA

Q: I’d like to turn to the Housatonic River cleanup in the Berkshires. What was it like working with such a wide range of different groups?

A: Yes, there were so many different stakeholders and it’s been going on so long. At first, there were community-based groups who live near the river and others in Pittsfield who got involved with the Pittsfield [PCB] cleanup and the cleanup of the first two miles of the river [completed in 2006] EPA worked with businesses, parking lots, and homes where PCB-contaminated dirt had been used as fill. Plus there were the Chamber of Commerce and tourism groups who felt that the contamination was a stigma on the river.

Q: And wasn’t it a stigma?

A: Well, I feel that a lot of people who recreate on the river don’t even notice any contamination. It’s not obvious except for the “catch and release” signs.

But back to the stakeholders, the Berkshire Environmental Action group and the fishing and hunting groups didn’t want the river shut off all at once. It took EPA a while to explain that the cleanup would be done in segments.

When we started working on the Rest of the River [the third and last part of the cleanup], we had to reestablish connections with the downriver groups from Lenox, Lee, Sheffield and Stockbridge. The citizens’ groups and elected officials from those towns had stopped going to meetings over the years.

Q: A lot of people feel the corrective measures for the Rest of the River didn’t go far enough.

A: It was difficult because EPA couldn’t advocate a particular plan. GE was saying, “you’ll destroy the river with an intrusive cleanup.” But our legal people said, “EPA can’t say what’s best until the proposed plan has gone through the public comment period.” While the corrective measures study was going on, we had to be quiet.

On the shore across Rising Pond in Housatonic, General Electric has proposed a PCB landfill, one of three along the Housatonic River. The landfills would replace shipping contaminated soil to a PCB decontamination facility. Photo: David Scribner

Meanwhile, the State people were talking to GE and starting to support “natural attenuation,” for much of the Rest of the River. But they still advocated cleanup of Woods Pond. We had to accommodate the State’s changing positions.

Q: Why did the State change its position?

A: A lot of the State people who had wanted a tougher cleanup had moved on, and those staffers who were left agreed with their bosses. The State didn’t even want cleanup behind the impoundments [behind the river dams].

Q: Eventually, in 2017, EPA, GE, Massachusetts, the Housatonic River Initiative, the Rest of the River Municipal Committee (Lenox, Lee, Sheffield, Stockbridge, Great Barrington) and a couple of others appeared in Washington DC before EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB). EPA largely prevailed, but now the remedy is in mediation. What can you say about that?

A: Mediation has been going on since last fall. The confidentiality agreements alone took a number of months to negotiate. It was a pretty painful process because every time a party tweeked the language in the confidentiality agreement, all the other parties had to review it and approve it.

In 2016 Stockbridge resident Denny Alsop paddled the length of the Housatonic River in Massachusetts to advocate for the removal of PCB contamination. He’s shown here on the river in Great Barrington. Photo: Isaac Scribner

The parties are pretty much the same as those who appeared before the EAB. The mediator is John Bickerman, who led the first round of mediation. So this is Round 2. The environmental groups wanted a different guy. They wanted to interview others, but EPA said it would take too long. He’s keeping a lower profile than before. My successor, Kelsey Dunvil, is handing press questions.

As for what the different parties want, the community groups are pushing for reexamination of the remedy [natural attenuation plus dredging in certain areas] at certain times in the future so that innovative technology can be used if it’s developed enough. The municipalities want their roads fixed by GE. A high priority for the host communities is compensation.

Q: When you say “host communities,” does that mean that GE will get the local landfills that the company is pushing for?

A: No. What I mean is that even if the stuff goes off-site, the communities want compensation because of the staging. Lenox, for instance, owns the property next to the river. GE could build a dewatering facility and rail facility and eventually turn it over to Lenox. GE probably won’t write them a check, but there will potentially be benefits to the communities.

The municipalities are also asking for Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) help. [EPA’s TASC program provides independent assistance through an EPA contract to help communities better understand the science, regulations and policies of environmental issues and EPA actions, according to EPA’s web site.]

The municipalities are also comparing this cleanup to the Hudson PCB situation in New York State. They’re asking what happened there. With the Hudson cleanup, GE purchased the land for dewatering the waste, and for staging the removal. GE also upgraded the public water systems as compensation to some affected municipalities.

Q: Have there been any sites as complex as the Housatonic PCB site in your EPA career?

A: Well, in the Berkshires, it is more complex because of the different municipalities, the community groups, all the elected officials. But I did have about three sites that were this complex: Fort Devens west of I-495, with three different towns; MMR [the Massachusetts Military Reservation] on the Cape that totaled 15,000 acres; and Raymark Industries in Stratford, Connecticut.

Raymark was similar to the GE/Pittsfield site because there was a lot of contaminated fill given out by the company – some Stratford businesses had been built on fill containing arsenic, PCBs, lead, and copper, and there were residences built on fill. EPA sampled 500 residential areas. There was disagreement about what to do with the waste for ten years before the town got on board with local disposal.

Q: It sounds as if community involvement and, as you said, empowering people to get along with each other, was work that suited you to a T. Thank you for taking the time to talk withThe Edge.

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