Great Barrington — They packed the room, hoping to make something happen, and fast.
But, alas, it will take a while.
The formal process for giving people information and a voice in what happens at the brownfield at 100 Bridge St. has begun. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP) Public Involvement Process (PIP) for the contaminated and derelict former New England Log Homes site is now underway.
The 8-acre site is polluted with dioxins and PCPs (pentachlorophenol) left there by the log home kit company during its production years before the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC) bought it for a $1 after the company went belly up in the mid-1990s.
That $1 was never a bargain, since millions would have to be spent to get rid of the carcinogens before anything could be built there. But the CDC knew that.
Given the expense of carting contaminated soil out of state to a licensed facility, the CDC tried to use a novel bioremediation technology in 2014 but fateful conditions like wind and rain thwarted the plans, some neighbors got scared over odors and some physical symptoms, and called up MassDEP and complained.
MassDEP shut the bioremediation down, and here we are.
Since 2014 the CDC has had plans for a $40 million mixed use development that included retail, office, housing and open space. Without an anchor tenant to commit, however, the CDC had to start with the affordable housing part on two acres of the site to get the ball rolling. But, to save money, the site was to be partially remediated, angering many in the community over possible exposures to those future residents.
The Zoning Board of Appeals gave CDC its permit but MassDEP said that, for a number of reasons, it wouldn’t allow a partial remediation. It’s all or nothing at this point, and that translates into many more dollars.
CDC’s executive director Tim Geller said that all along the public has had a say. This PIP simply formalizes it by creating a repository of information both online and in hard copy at the library. The PIP was triggered by a citizens’ petition.
Geller said the public could also talk to him. “I’m available,” he said, adding that people can make appointments to see him in his Bridge Street office or contact him by email and phone. “I have a lot to do, but I enjoy talking about this stuff.”
Any suggestions or criticisms of CDC’s remediation plan can be submitted in writing by snail mail or email.
But Wednesday night’s meeting at the Mason Library was just to “look at the PIP plan,” he said. “It’s not about the site.”
But some people just couldn’t help it. The highly contaminated site, having sat idle and an eyesore in a mostly residential area – and with groundwater contaminated with PCPs right next to the Housatonic River – is wearing patience thin.
Activist, writer and filmmaker Mickey Friedman wondered whether the Environmental Protection Agency ever assessed the site toward “putting it on the superfund list.” That would give it a funding boost.
Geller said the “scale” at this site was too small for that.
Friedman wasn’t going to just sit still for this boring “procedural” stuff. And he made a novel point to Geller.
“It is in your and everybody’s interest if [abutters were given] fact sheets about the health risks of dioxins, furans and PCPs,” he said. “The neighbors might have weighed the risks and not have been so worried about by the odors [from the bioremediation], and would have been willing to tolerate it for sake of remediating the site.”
Too late. But there may still be hope for another strategy to get the bioremediation going again. After all, it did result in significant reductions of dioxin levels, according to the company that performed the work, even though MassDEP didn’t buy it.
Geller told everyone the fact that a handful of residents – “it was six” – shut down the bioremediation was proof that the public has always had a say in what happens there.
“Believe me, the DEP responds,” he added.
Friedman went on to say that town government and the whole community should get behind a good cleanup to get this thing moving. “Create a consensus now and avoid problems down the road,” he said.
Friedman also mentioned that groundwater plume of PCPs “moving towards the river,” and that maybe this might raise some eyebrows at the EPA to tap into their deeper pockets.
Geller also explained that there was “no existing remedy for water table contamination; if there were, we’d have to take it.” If, in future, there is, he added, the CDC will be required to clean it.
And Barbara Cianfarini, cofounder of Pittsfield-based Citizens for PCB Removal, said there is “a lot of feeling in the community that the bioremediation was not given a fair shake.”
She wondered if MassDEP could be petitioned to reopen the bioremediation process.
Geller said “organized public pressure” might be just the ticket.
“I personally wanted to do the [bioremediation], and I convinced my board to take the risk in doing that. We did everything…our representatives took it to the highest levels in Boston. We were never given satisfactory answers.”
Jim Harwood, president of the CDC’s board, said that, indeed, “barring a paradigm shift at the DEP,” bioremediation would be a tough sell to the agency.
The next CDC informational meeting will be held at the Mason Library on Thursday, Jan. 12, at 5:30 p.m.