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Long wait for PCB cleanup

EPA offers draft proposal for Housatonic, drawing new criticism


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

Woods Pond in Lenox, Mass., is among the stretches of the Housatonic River most heavily contaminated with PCBs. Dredging to remove the pollution wouldn’t be completed until 2029 under a cleanup plan released last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For 45 years, from 1932 until 1977, millions of pounds of PCBs made their way from General Electric Co.’s transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield into the Housatonic River.
It could well take nearly as long to neutralize this toxic legacy of industrial pollution in the Housatonic.

A cleanup of about two miles of the river in Pittsfield was completed nearly a decade ago. But it was only last month that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made public its long-awaited recommendation for removing most – but by no means all -- of the PCBs from what it terms “the Rest of the River,” the 125 miles of riverbed, banks and floodplain south from Pittsfield to Long Island Sound.

For the rest of the river, the EPA now has proposed an extensive cleanup. It calls for excavation of 1 million cubic yards of PCB-polluted sediment that would be shipped by rail to a licensed treatment facility, yet to be identified, removing 89 percent of the PCBs from the river.

The EPA estimates the cleanup will cost GE $613 million and take 13 years to complete – once the work begins. The project would involve excavation of 45 acres of floodplain and the dredging of 298 acres of riverbed.

Under the terms of a 2000 consent decree that avoided designation of the river as a Superfund site, GE was compelled to remove PCB-laden sediments along the first two miles of river, from its Pittsfield facility to the confluence of the river’s west and east branches at Fred Garner Park. That work, involving extensive dredging of the riverbed and excavation of its banks, was completed in 2006 and has been regarded by both the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection as a remarkable success, creating a river ecosystem that is now flourishing despite the initial disruption caused by dredging.

But the more challenging cleanup lies ahead. To the south of that first cleanup area, the river meanders through Massachusetts Audubon’s Canoe Meadows wildlife sanctuary, drapes itself around a high-end housing development off Palomino Drive in Pittsfield, and loops on southward through a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife sanctuary where the state Department of Environmental Protection has identified a significant population of endangered species, both plants and animals.

Still farther south, large deposits of PCB-contaminated sediment lie behind the dams at Woods Pond in Lenox Dale and Rising Pond in Housatonic.

The extent to which this fragile ecosystem could – and should – be disturbed to remove the toxic contamination has been the subject of intense negotiations between the EPA, GE and the DEP for the past eight years.

While these negotiations were under way, GE organized – and covertly funded -- a coalition of local businesses, cultural leaders and financial interests to oppose the cleanup on the grounds that any removal of PCBs would be too destructive to the environment. GE instead pushed for what it called “monitored natural recovery” -- basically allowing the compounds to break down on their own over time, a process that could take decades if not centuries.

On the other side, environmental activists, such as members of the Housatonic River Initiative, had insisted that the complete removal of PCBs, whether by dredging or through as-yet-untested bioremediation techniques, should be the preferred cleanup goal.


Steering a middle course
In the proposal released last month, the EPA seems to have come down near the middle. To achieve a cleanup level of 1 part per million of PCBs, the EPA explained in its summary, would have taken 50 years, $917 million, the removal of 2.9 million cubic yards of material.
“Of the nine alternatives we examined, this is the most balanced,” EPA’s Dean Tagliafero, project manager for the earlier cleanup round in Pittsfield, explained to an audience of several hundred people assembled in the Duffin Auditorium at Lenox Memorial High School.

“Our obligation is to reduce the risks to human health, reduce the risks to the environment, control continued releases of PCBs into the river, gauge the long-term effectiveness of the proposed remedy, the short-term impact of the cleanup, and the cost,” Tagliafero continued. “PCB concentrations within the Housatonic and its floodplain represent an unacceptable risk. That has been documented. And our samples have shown that there has been no significant degradation or burial of the PCBs over time.”

The EPA’s proposal plan includes a variety of cleanup approaches, explained Robert Cianciarulo, chief of the Superfund program in EPA’s Region 1, which covers New England. In addition to dredging, the project would include capping both Woods Pond and Rising Pond along with bioengineering of riverbanks. For the river downstream of the Rising Pond dam, the EPA supports “monitored natural recovery.”

Cianciarulo noted that in a concession to the DEP’s insistence on sparing endangered species, the EPA proposes to leave “core habitat areas” with a maximum of 50 parts per million of PCBs, far higher than the 2 ppm standard the federal government considers protective of human health.


Opposition within Pittsfield
The agency’s proposal appears to face some opposition within the city of Pittsfield.
“We know there are some neighborhoods in Pittsfield that will be close to the cleanup, and that they will experience a big impact,” Cianciarulo acknowledged.

Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi complained at last month’s forum that the cleanup would disturb the “tranquility” of people living along the project’s route.

“There will be a significant impact on tourism and roads,” he said.
The mayor’s comments were greeted with derision, however, by Barbara Cianfarini of Citizens for PCB Removal. Cianfarini lives in a Pittsfield neighborhood near the part of the river that was cleaned up a decade ago.

“We went through a cleanup in Lakewood district,” Cianfarini said. “It wasn’t wonderful, but it was livable. We’ve had four mayors during this cleanup process, and not one of them has stood up for us -- the working class citizens who were impacted first. The higher-class neighborhoods should be treated the same.”

The mayor’s remarks were similar to the objections voiced by C. Jeffrey Cook, a lawyer who has represented General Electric and who lives on Palomino Drive.

“How are you going to get the cleanup equipment in without tearing up the floodplain?” Cook asked.

He also argued that to remove 1.9 million cubic yards of polluted sludge would require 10,000 truckloads per year.

Tagliafero responded that the Palomino Drive neighborhood would likely see 30 trucks per day, and that if the roads were damaged, GE would be required to repair them. He also noted that GE would be given flexibility to figure out the least intrusive process for carrying out the cleanup work.


Environmentalists disappointed
Tagliafero pointed out that the formal publication of the EPA’s proposal for the “rest of the river” is only the beginning of the process to begin the actual cleanup. The EPA has opened a comment period that will extend into the fall. From those comments, a final cleanup strategy will be determined, at which point the cleanup could be appealed in court by GE. The cleanup can’t begin until any appeals are resolved.

“The permitting will take two to three years to get through,” Tagliafero said. “So I would expect the cleanup to begin in five years.”

At that rate, the dredging of the river and floodplain in Pittsfield would commence in 2019; the dredging of Woods Pond wouldn’t be completed until 2029; and the removal of PCBs from behind the dam at Rising Pond would take place between 2031 and 2033.

Environmentalists were, by and large, dismayed with the EPA’s plan.

Peter Defur, an environmental scientist, questioned the EPA’s setting of a lower cleanup standard for the habitat areas of endangered species in the state wildlife sanctuary.

“Is the 50 parts per million standard an arbitrary number?” Defur asked Tagliafero. “The animals that need protection the most are in the areas where removal of contamination is the least.”
Tim Gray of Lenox Dale, the founder and director of the Housatonic River Initiative, also said the EPA’s proposal falls short.

“The whole plan is disappointing,” Gray said. “The parts per million that will be left in the river are too high -- higher than what the EPA has done in other rivers. This is our one chance in history to get this right, and we’re not doing that.”

Dennis Regan, Berkshire County director of the Housatonic Valley Association, echoed Gray’s criticism.

“We are losing an opportunity to remove PCBs from the Housatonic,” he said. “They’re supposed to be the agency that’s protecting us. I perceive the effective influence of General Electric in this proposal, and of influential landowners in Pittsfield.”

Regan also criticized the state DEP’s role in pushing for a less ambitious cleanup.
“I’m particularly upset that the state of Massachusetts doesn’t seem concerned about this toxic waste, for it’s proven that PCBs are toxic wastes,” he said. “The DEP seems to focus on endangered species, and I can understand that. But to have this toxic waste cleaned up is a small disruption for a huge gain.”

The EPA considers PCBs a probable carcinogen and a likely developmental disruptor for both humans and wildlife.

Regan challenged the repeated refrain of EPA officials that the agency’s cleanup proposal is “balanced.”

“Replace the word balance with cop-out,” Regan said. “This plan is completely out of balance.”
Regan and Gray both said they were puzzled as to why the EPA hadn’t incorporated less invasive, cutting-edge bioremediation techniques into its cleanup plan.

“BioTech Restorations, which is removing dioxins from the former Log Homes site in Great Barrington, has a way of dredging a river that doesn’t involve excavating the riverbanks and floodplain,” Gray maintained. “BioTech would neutralize toxic sediment on site. There would be no need to ship it elsewhere.”

Using microorganisms to break down PCBs on site would avoid having to ship contaminated materials to landfills and treatment facilities in economically depressed parts of the country, he suggested.

“Give a new technique a try, just an acre or two,” Gray said. “If it works, we could become the model for the world for innovative cleanups.”

And Benno Friedman, an environmentalist from Sheffield, pleaded with the EPA for a more complete removal of PCBs.

“This river has been crying out for assistance, for us to remake and renew it,” Friedman said. “The river has been severely damaged by wanton, sloppy, greedy actions. This cleanup proposal is motivated by who has the most influence and is a miscarriage of the duty of the EPA. PCBs have an estimated life of 200 years in the environment. We have a moral responsibility to make a difference.”