Great Barrington — A man stood up in the Town Hall meeting room last summer and told town officials he was concerned about the movement of contaminated groundwater under the 8-acre 100 Bridge Street brownfield, otherwise known as the former New England Log Homes site, whose current owner is jumping through all kinds of hoops to try to remediate and redevelop.
Later, Don Ward explained the reason he spoke up: the site sits within the town of Sheffield’s Zone II public water supply. Zone II is the part of an aquifer that acts as a recharge for a well that is pumping lots of water, such as that for a main water supply. What he was talking about was the secondary source of drinking water for Sheffield.
Ward, co-owner of the Great Barrington botanical nursery that bears his family’s name, lives in Sheffield and is chairperson of the conservation commission there. He made the comments after a public hearing for an affordable housing complex planned for the site, which involves a complicated strategy by site owner Community Development Corporation of Southern Berkshire (CDC) to remediate the soil of dioxins and PCPs (pentachlorophenol).
While the soil has high levels of these hard-to-break-down organic chlorinated compounds, there is an area of groundwater contamination under the central/western side of the site that, given current technologies, can’t be addressed, according to both the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and the CDC. This was the area where the log home kit company kept its main dip tank for coating wood in PCP-containing preservatives.
Ward says he wants to stay alert to potential consequences of future remediation and construction work there in case “disturbances to the site could lead to enhanced pollution.”
A 2004 site report said the last groundwater sampling revealed PCP and dioxin levels at concentrations above drinking water standards.
Yet right now, that groundwater plume appears to be under control, according to the firm that did that testing –Ransom Environmental Consultants Inc., the CDC’s site team. One of Ransom’s reports, after extensive testing, said the ground water situation held “no significant risk exists, although site is mapped within the Zone II of the public water supply for the Town of Sheffield.”
Travis Helming, chief operator for Sheffield Water Company, said 2015 PCP tests for the company’s two main wells came back negative. Dioxins, however, were not tested for because “the state waived the requirement to test for them.”
MassDEP spokesperson Catherine Skiba said she was still looking into why this was the case, but did not yet have an answer by Tuesday evening.
Ward is troubled but measured. “It’s precautionary,” he said of his concerns. “I don’t believe there’s going to be a problem by disturbing the site, but I want to make sure there’s monitoring going on in key locations so that, if there ever was a problem, we would be able to recognize it.”
The Bridge Street site isn’t the only highly contaminated property in Sheffield’s Zone II water supply: The former Reid Cleaners property on Main Street is, too, and there are plenty of other sites being monitored by MassDEP that fall within the zone.
It all raises questions about maintaining a healthy aquifer; this one runs from Housatonic down to the Connecticut border.
Christine Hatch is a hydrologist and an assistant professor at UMass Amherst. She defines an aquifer as a “geologic unit capable of storing and transmitting usable quantities of water.” She said the ways in which an aquifer might get contaminated “depends on the specifics of the aquifer in question and the pollution in question.” And while municipal water supplies have “more stringent” testing requirements, she said, private wells might not. She has done quite a bit of testing on her own well.
“I tested for 400 different things because I’m a hydrologist,” she said.
“There is a direct relationship between drinking water and the aquifer,” said Dennis Regan, Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association. “The number one concern to water quality is storm runoff. Everything on the surface goes right into the water and contaminates it. Slowly, eventually, it will get into the aquifer.”
“The aquifer is an enclosed system,” he added. “The impact on one area expands and goes into the environment, the system.”
He used the massive PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination crisis in Pittsfield as an example. “The aquifer in Pittsfield is now a PCB oil storage facility,” he said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
“In Pittsfield they gave up on it,” he noted. Indeed, Housatonic River Initiative’s Tim Gray told me about this last spring as he pointed to caps in a field that marked an aquifer that had to be shut down due to the extensive pollution.
Regan said he is concerned that “[private] wells taking water from it could be affected by contaminants like PCP and dioxins…but no one is testing for these. These are expensive tests.”
As for Great Barrington’s water, Peter Marks, superintendent and water operator of the Great Barrington Fire District Water Department showed me the supply map. The main pumping station is next to the Green River and has a 400-foot protective radius around the wellhead to keep it clear of contaminants. A 2003 MassDEP Source Water Assessment Program (SWAP) report said this “shallow sand and gravel aquifer” system has a “high” susceptibility to contamination for lack of “hydrologic barriers such as clay.”
Threats to the Great Barrington Zone II recharge supply, Marks said, are likely farms and fuel at the Great Barrington airport.
But so far, so good.
“The state requires us to test [annually] for just about everything,” he said. And in 2015 the water supply “met or exceeded” state and federal guidelines.
Ward said he simply wants to monitor the situation and to make sure people stay awake to the possibility of future pollution migration in these water sources.
“I’d like my community to look over the shoulder of environmental consultants and MassDEP,” he said.