Great Barrington – At first, rain was at a blessing for bioremediation work at the former New England Log Homes site. Now, it is a big problem.
Work has been on and off at the Bridge Street site, contaminated with toxic chlorinated compounds, dioxin and polychlorinated phenols, ever since four residents complained to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of “nuisance dust and odor conditions.” The DEP issued a notice of noncompliance to the Community Development Corporation of Southern Berkshire on July 14, for which it was told to stop remedial work at the site until there is a plan to identify and control odors and dust.
DEP approved a plan to fix the problem a few days later, and the CDC set to work cultivating the soil to eliminate odor, said CDC Executive Director Timothy Geller. But heavy rains prevented the work from being fully executed, he said, and the odor issue persisted.
The CDC cultivated only once before the DEP issued another notice by phone to stop work on August 2 because, Geller said, “we had made little impact on the odor.” DEP also asked for a monitoring plan by a certified industrial hygienist (CIH), Geller noted, and that plan should be completed by August 27.
Indications from Benchmark Development, the site’s developer, point to the project resuming at around the same time, said Christopher Young, president of Biotech Restorations, the company that created the revolutionary soil treatment process.
The way to get rid of the odor, Young says, is to continue working the soil, but MassDEP said the odors first need to be studied.
Odors first appeared in early July, when soil amendments and Biotech’s product were worked into the earth at the PCP- and dioxin-contaminated brownfields site, as part of a new bioremediation technique in which the soil’s native microbe population is increased and given a boost to help them consume the contaminants. Since the initial material was applied, work at the site has required aerating the soil by cultivating it every two weeks, irrigating it when necessary, monitoring dust, and taking samples until the soil is free of contaminants. All went according to plan until the July rains came, according to Young of Biotech, a chemist who used to work for Dow Chemical.
“We never anticipated that the site’s cleanup would be concurrent with the heaviest rainfall in 227 years,” Young said. At one point, he added, “three quarters of the site was under water.”
Until then, Young said, the soil’s response to the treatment was as hoped, but when water saturated the site, “the bacteria switched to anaerobic mode,” causing it to create a carbon-based sulfur compound. The bacteria will still consume contaminants in an anaerobic state, Young added, but the process is accompanied by the sulfur compound, creating the odor that is chemically related to mercaptans, a naturally-occurring odor added to natural gas for leak detection.
Making matters worse, pH levels dropped to a low level, Young said, creating what in farming is known as “sour” soil, as opposed to “sweet” soil with higher pH levels. It is what happens, he said, when a farm field or compost remains unturned. “It’s like a garbage can sitting out in the sun,” he said.
At very high levels, mercaptan — found in animals, some foods, flatulence and bad breath — can be toxic, according to the Website chem answers.com, and “the United States OSHA Ceiling Limit for mercaptan is 10 parts per million.”
“The human nose,” Young said, “can detect these odors at 1-part per million — very low concentrations, that’s why they add it to LP gas.”
Bard College at Simon’s Rock chemistry professor David Myers, agrees.
“Because they stink so much,” he said of mercaptans, “they become very obviously present and almost intolerable well below the toxic level.”
Mercaptans in this situation are “not at all dangerous,” said Young, and they “don’t convey pollutants from ground to atmosphere. Neither dangerous chemicals nor dioxins are riding along on the winds.”
Dioxins, he added, “have a high affinity for and attach strongly to organic matter. These compounds simply don’t volatize to atmosphere.”
Young also explained that after the bacteria “liberates the chloride” from the chlorinated compounds in the contaminants, the chloride either off-gasses, which is harmless, he says, or “attaches to soil as simple salt.”
At least one Great Barrington resident has been concerned about airborne mold from the site. “It is possible,” Young said. “But I think also unlikely unless there were such strong prevailing winds to carry it. There is now a crust on the site since it dried.”
The way to solve the odor problem, he said, is to “cultivate the soil to restore the aerobic condition where the bacteria produce water and carbon dioxide just like we do.” Young had planned to apply 4 tons of agricultural lime to “immediately neutralize” the odor, but MassDEP intervened, he said, and will not allow the work to resume until it is convinced the odor is not harmful and can be stopped. A “Catch-22,” Young said.
The CDC’s consulting group, Ransom Consulting Engineers and Scientists, specializes in brownfields remediation.
Ransom’s Project Manager, Nancy Marshall, responded to the noncompliance notice with a proposal to manage areas of standing water; to farm areas of the site to aerate the soil in order to bring the bacteria back to an aerobic state; to add the lime, and to use a tarp to cover a particularly odiferous section of soil, that according to some who have worked on the site, said Geller, smells like turpentine, and was there “prior to our work.” He also said that no one “off site” has mentioned that particular odor.
In her response Marshall insisted that Biotech soil additions are “safe organic materials” and “non-toxic.”
Yet MassDEP, which conducted a site inspection after the initial soil amendments were made in July, must rule that the odor isn’t harmful, according to its August 4 correspondence with Geller.
The CDC bought the 8-acre parcel for $1 dollar after New England Log Homes, Inc. went bankrupt in the 1990s. The heavily polluted site requires remediation in order for it to be redeveloped. An elaborate recreational, commercial and residential complex — anchored by the Berkshire Co-op — is envisioned for the property.
MassDEP’s John Ziegler mentioned the “turpentine-like odor” in his letter to the CDC and said, “the department has concerns about potential hazards from exposure to ammonia, dioxins, pentachlorophenol, and volatile organic compounds.”
He added that the “source of odors has not yet been confirmed, and that several sources of odors may exist.”
Young said that it is natural for state regulators to have the most “protective” response in such a situation.
“I would have probably taken the same action until I had a grasp of the science,” he said.
“They (the CDC) need to identify what the odor is,” said Western Mass DEP spokesperson Catherine Skiba. “And they are required to do the air monitoring.”
So far four residents have complained to MassDEP, and that was enough for the state to pull the plug until the odor issues can be “quantified,” said Geller. In order to do that, a certified industrial hygienist from URS Corporation in Clifton, N.J., has been dispatched, said Geller, to make a plan that includes setting up a monitor tol detect any potentially harmful particulates in the air.
One of the neighbors who complained right after the product application was Art Korte of Bridge Street, who has lived across from the site since 1960. The 84-year-old Korte said that anyone “would have complained,” when the product was first applied.
His main objection, he said, was the dust that landed on his porch, and the smell of the amendments, which included manure and nitrogen, and which has since subsided. He said that he fully supports the project and “would love to see the place built up before I die,” but also said he thinks remediation is “all about money.” He added that another neighbor, who is also elderly, experienced a respiratory issue at the outset of the work, and another had a bloody nose. Neither of these women could be reached for comment.
Katie Kilmer lives near Lake Mansfield, and said that on the day of the application, she could smell it from her house. She also said that she had been down on Bridge Street that day to talk to Mr. Korte, and said she developed “red, puffy eyes,” and an eye infection in one. She said she was there briefly on Friday morning, and didn’t experience any symptoms.
Another summer resident, who declined to be identified, thinks it may be responsible for symptoms that mimic severe allergies. She said her family, which includes children, has been “sick as dogs” with eyes streaming, and burning, running noses, whenever the odor reaches her house. She also said that a series of house guests have experienced similar symptoms upon arrival to her home on Quarry Street — at the very top of the hill above Bridge Street — and some have had to leave due to reactions. Whenever the family had gone to the other side of town, she said, symptoms subsided. The odor, she said, would waft up in the middle of the day and also in the evening, and smelled of “burning corn with poop mixed in,” though that has mostly stopped. She did not make a complaint to MassDEP, and is willing to entertain the notion that something else entirely might be causing her family’s symptoms.
“It could also be a summer cold,” she said.
Trice Atchison of nearby Grove Street said she “tends to be pretty sensitive to chemical/environmental irritants, and has multiple food allergies,” but hasn’t had any problem with the odors, adding that it does “stink like manure on some days.”
The notice of noncompliance mentioned that the dust on porches across from the site was seen by MassDEP inspectors the day of the July 7 soil amendment phase, and said that the dust generated by that application “was not detected by the current monitoring system used for dust,” wrote Eva V. Tor, DEP Regional Director, Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup.
In reply, Ransom’s Nancy Marshall indicated that there was trouble with the dust monitors, whose “remote monitoring was interrupted,” and that the equipment provider attributed this to “erratic cellular signal strength in the area.” The data regarding dust movement, she wrote, was not affected, however.
Geller clarified Marshall’s point. The monitors, he said, experienced only “sporadic trouble, and only affected the real-time sending of information. It didn’t interrupt our collecting of data.”
Geller also noted that the monitors, which “react to smaller particles,” were not triggered by what was “coarse, granular” dust, even though all the “monitors were covered in it.” The dust came not from kicked up soil, Geller said, but rather, the amendments and Biotech’s product.
Marshall said the same in her correspondence, indicating that the dust blown around on July 7 was not “disturbed” soil from the site. Another application of the product is tentatively slated for September, which Young said he hopes will be unnecessary, but will depend on how well the bacteria have done their job degrading PCPs and dioxins.
She further stated that if another application is warranted, Biotech will reformulate its product to minimize dust, and contractors will use a drop-spreader that will “disperse the product directly toward the ground,” and disk the soil when wind is low. The extended weather forecast will also be taken into account, to prevent another situation that may interfere with the remediation.
Young said that larger farming equipment would be used on the next go round. “We need to go deeper,” he said. “There wasn’t sufficient mixing with the equipment that was there. It could create more dust, but with bigger machines we can go deeper on fewer passes.”
Geller said that the odor is “weather-related.” Of the complaints, he said “in retrospect we could have done a better job preparing people.” Geller is sympathetic to residents’ concerns and “fear of the unknown.”
Geller and Young held a public meeting at the Mason Library on August 16 to explain the odor, the process, and reassure residents who live close to the site. Four people attended, including Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams, Katie Kilmer, and Pleasant Street resident Joyce Scheffey. Scheffey later said she is outraged by the shutdown and criticized MassDEP for overreacting to complaints “instead of looking at the science, which is their job.”
Abrahams said that it was not an “angry meeting,” and that Young “explained that what they were smelling wasn’t harmful.”
Geller took the complaints seriously and “took full responsibility,” Abrahams said. With regard to the state’s decision to stop work, Abrahams pointed to bureaucratic protocol in play. “I have no idea why there isn’t a human being somewhere who says this doesn’t make sense.”
The site’s native bacteria require higher temperatures to degrade the contaminants, Young said, and depending on how quickly the bacteria have done their job thus far, and how soon the project gets the green light, they may have to complete the process in the spring.