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Under fire from all sides

EPA tries to navigate conflicting demands on Housatonic cleanup



Contributing writer


Twelve years ago this month, General Electric Co. signed a consent decree with state and federal environmental agencies under which it agreed to clean up PCB pollution in the Housatonic River, setting the stage for the dredging of 1.5 miles of the river within the city of Pittsfield that was completed in 2006.

Early next year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release its plan for the second phase of the Housatonic cleanup – in what the agency calls “the Rest of the River,” from Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield to Long Island Sound.

This second part of the project will be far more complicated and costly. By its own estimate, GE has said it could be required to spend up to $900 million for a thorough cleanup of the polychlorinated biphenyls it released into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield transformer factory from the 1940s until the 1970s.

So it is no surprise that in its yet-to-be-released draft form, the EPA’s “Rest of the River” cleanup plan – the “remedy” that the agency will compel GE to undertake -- has been the subject of intense scrutiny and not-so-subtle attempts by GE and its allies to reduce the scope of the work required.

But some of the strongest criticism of the draft has come from EPA officials themselves – not because the cleanup measures under consideration are too invasive or disruptive to the environment, as GE and some state and local officials contend, but because the scope of work contemplated may not be thorough enough.

In a letter written last year but only made public recently, the chairwoman of the EPA’s own peer review board questioned why the draft cleanup plan, prepared by the staff of the agency’s Region 1, which covers New England, would leave PCB-contaminated sediments in the riverbanks and flood plain at concentrations that would violate the EPA’s own standards for protecting public health.

Pressure campaign

In July 2011, a working draft of the agency’s Rest of the River cleanup plan was presented to EPA’s National Remedy Review Board, a team of EPA scientists who met in Seattle. It was a significant but routine step in the finalization of a cleanup strategy. Each major contamination removal project overseen by the EPA has undergone such an independent analysis to ensure scientific and regulatory consensus.

This case was special, however. It was so crucial that GE mounted an unprecedented campaign to convince the review board to postpone consideration of the Housatonic cleanup, claiming that the plan was “a rush to judgment,” in spite of the fact that the condition of the river had been studied for decades and in more depth than any other EPA-designated brownfields site.

The identical phrase “premature rush to judgment” appeared in letters to the review board from GE and from state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell, U.S. Sen. John Kerry and U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst. It was highly unusual, EPA spokesman Jim Murphy acknowledged, that such an orchestrated effort would be made to interrupt the EPA’s internal deliberations.

GE had also organized the Berkshire business community through a $300,000 covert contribution to 1Berkshire, an alliance of tourist and economic development organizations. Members of the group advanced a concept dubbed “Smart Cleanup,” arguing that an ambitious effort to remove PCB contamination would irreparably damage the river ecosystem and the region’s reputation as a tourist destination.

GE also helped that cause by hiring as its chief lobbyist for a “minimally invasive cleanup” the state’s former secretary of environmental affairs, Bob Durand. Durand is a favorite among local sportsmen who are persuaded that the river environment, poisoned though it may be, could not recover from the removal of PCBs.

But it turns out that the outside pressure on the EPA’s internal review had an unintended effect: The National Remedy Review Board responded by calling for a more rigorous cleanup.

“Based on the information presented, the boards believe that the proposed cleanup at this site would leave large quantities of PCBs in floodplain soils” review board Chairwoman Amy Legare warned in an October 2011 letter to James T. Owens, director of the Office of Site Remediation and Restoration for EPA Region 1.

“In the future,” Legare predicted, “the EPA may determine that leaving this remaining waste on site is not protective of human health and the environment.”

Protecting public health

Legare’s letter was posted on the EPA’s “Rest of the River” Web site, but not until Aug. 6 of this year.

Legare recommended that EPA Region 1 develop “a contingency remedy” that would result in removing more PCBs from floodplain soils.

She also suggested that the agency pursue other cleanup alternatives, such as a pilot program to test the effectiveness of capping the PCB-contaminated sediment accumulating along the bottom of “impoundments” such as Woods Pond in Lenox Dale and Rising Pond in Housatonic, where dams blocked the movement of PCBs downstream.

But Legare saved her most scathing criticism for the remedies offered by Massachusetts environmental officials.

Reminding her EPA colleagues that federal legislation governing the cleanup “identifies protectiveness of human health and the environment as the threshold criterion” for any cleanup plan, she went on to characterize the state’s approach as nothing less than producing a toxic waste threat, which the law defines as soils polluted with PCBs at concentrations of at least 100 parts per million.

The state’s proposal would leave PCBs at levels of about 800 ppm in the floodplain, Legare notes.

“There is a fundamental disagreement concerning the interpretation and application of some of the criteria for remedy selection,” Legare observed from her comparison of the state DEP and EPA assumptions. The Massachusetts DEP, she noted, “believes that long-term ecological risks were acceptable when balanced against the impacts of remediation on habitat loss.”

The state’s preferred methods, she continued, would rely upon “institutional controls” such as warning signs to restrict consumption of contaminated fish. This approach is quite similar to GE’s endorsement of “monitored natural recovery,” a basically passive approach that would avoid costly excavation in favor of letting the PCB compounds break down over time, estimated to be hundreds of years, while in the meantime expanding a system of warning signs and public information.

Such a strategy, of course, would not stop the exposure of fish and wildlife to high levels of PCBs.

In short, the review board suggested that the Region 1 draft remedy may have gone too far to avoid a showdown with state agencies and GE. Whatever cleanup plan the EPA ultimately chooses is sure to be challenged by GE. What the agency is hoping to avoid, however, is having a state agency such as the Department of Environmental Protection siding with General Electric.

Furthermore, the lengthy process of developing and approving a plan to remove PCBs from the Housatonic is only the beginning. The cleanup itself could take as long as 14 years to complete.

So the EPA has been at pains during the past year to bridge the divide between its mandate to protect human health and natural habitat and the position of state environmental regulators who see far less risk to wildlife and the ecosystem in the PCB levels in and along the Housatonic.

Legare pointed out, for instance, that the state is adamantly opposed to stabilizing the Housatonic’s twisting riverbanks – using a technique called armoring – where erosion releases significant quantities of PCB-polluted soil.

Complex negotiations

Curt Spalding, the EPA’s Region 1 administrator, acknowledges the complexity of removing PCBs from a river that meanders through wetlands and wildlife preserves in a coil of oxbows punctuated by dams where heavily contaminated sediments have accumulated.

“There is nothing about the cleanup of PCBs from the Housatonic River that is like anything else in the history of the EPA,” Spalding said in an interview at the EPA office in Pittsfield. “It is unique. It is a hybrid.”

Besides the difficulty of the cleanup work, however, he could also have been referring to the delicate balance the EPA needs to maintain between its mission of protecting public health and environmental integrity on the one hand -- and the realities of protecting the agency from the pervasive political influence of one of the nation's largest corporations on the other.

That task has grown more complicated since Massachusetts environmental officials largely embraced GE’s push to limit the scope of the cleanup.

EPA and DEP technical staff have conducted joint reviews of their independently researched data and taken another look at the results of the river cleanup project in Pittsfield, where, despite intensive dredging, the river has become a thriving habitat once again.

And in a series of public forums in recent months, EPA officials and their state counterparts appeared to have reached at least a working and less adversarial relationship.

Negotiations have also continued between the EPA and GE to identify areas where they disagree, in hopes of averting a long legal challenge once the EPA’s plan is finalized. The minutes of those discussions are uploaded to the EPA’s Rest of the River Web site.

But the ongoing if uneasy discussions between the EPA, state regulators, and GE, plus the release of the review board’s demand that the EPA’s Region 1 office reaffirm its commitment to a comprehensive cleanup, has reawakened the skepticism of environmentalists.

“The environmental community is not happy with Region 1,” declared local activist Tim Gray, co-founder of the Housatonic River Initiative. “Our concern – the same concern that the NRRB has – is that the cleanup approach will violate federal guidelines. Thirty years later, and we’re still talking about more signs. This is crazy. And we’re surprised that the state was able to make a presentation before the NRRB.”

Shep Evans of Stockbridge, who represents the Housatonic Valley Association on a citizens panel that’s monitoring the PCB cleanup, summed up the unhappiness of environmentalists with the possibility that the EPA might pursue the more limited cleanup advocated by the state and GE.

“I want the EPA to tell us why they want to leave PCBs levels at 800 parts per million in the flood plain,” Evans fumed.

Evans may have an opportunity to get some answers on Oct. 16 when the citizens panel, the Citizens Coordinating Council, meets at the EPA’s Pittsfield headquarters on Lyman Street.

Specter of toxic landfills

The compromises potentially being incorporated into the EPA’s cleanup plan aren’t the only issue troubling environmentalists.

At the urging of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, five southern Berkshires communities – Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield – have joined Pittsfield in demanding that the EPA plan reimburse towns for damages to infrastructure and economic vitality that the cleanup will cause. A preliminary estimate put those costs at $15,000 per year just to repair and upgrade town highways damaged by trucks removing PCB sludge, but the planning commission says the cost may be far more than that.

“The total cost of this phase of the cleanup is very substantial – in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Nathaniel Karns, the planning commission’s executive director, told the Great Barrington Board of Selectmen. “I’m the last person to have a crystal ball, but I would not for a minute assume the EPA is on a path toward a total cleanup.”

Still, he said, the cost of doing nothing will be worse for communities along the Housatonic.

“There is a cost to any of the cleanup options, but no cleanup has the most cost, in terms of property values that will decline and in public health, and those costs would go on forever if the PCBs are not removed,” Karns said.

He suggested that by working together, the towns could persuade the EPA to establish an economic development fund, as a reimbursement for the disruption the cleanup process will impose.

And then there’s the possibility that, despite the denials of state and federal officials, GE will be allowed to create local landfills for the PCBs it winds up dredging from the river, rather than having to ship the contaminated material to a certified treatment facility outside the region.

Because the EPA is leaning toward having the PCB-laden sediments shipped out of the area by rail, GE could be required to pay for upgrading the Housatonic Railroad line between Housatonic and Pittsfield.

Burying the waste locally would cost less, and in fact, GE has secured options on property for just that purpose, Karns said.

In return, he added, towns would be offered an economic incentive.

“There is definitely a divide-and-conquer strategy going on,” Karns observed.

George Wislocki, the former director of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, was more blunt.

“It’s a bribe, just like Hill 78,” he commented, referring to the enormous – and still growing – mound of PCB wastes, wrapped in a yellow tarpaulin, next to the Allendale Elementary School in Pittsfield.

Hill 78 is where PCB-laced sludge dredged from the river within Pittsfield is being deposited. In compensation for not having to ship these contaminated materials out of town, GE offered the city a $10 million economic development fund.

“I have a hunch there will be landfills,” Wislocki said.



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