LENOX -- The cleanup of PCB-contaminated material from Silver Lake at the former GE industrial complex in Pittsfield is nearing completion. But two recent releases of airborne particles containing the probable cancer-causing chemical -- blamed on "disturbances" of lake-bottom debris and sediment during the cleanup -- aroused the anger of several environmental advocates when it was disclosed during an EPA-led "Rest of River" update at the Lenox Library this week.
During a briefing for the GE Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council, David Dickerson, the federal agency's project manager for the site, revealed that sensor measurements at the lake on April 24 and May 2 exceeded the "action level" that requires public notification.
"The ‘action level' was lower than the level one would have to breathe consistently, 24-7, 365 days a year for many years or decades to be considered a risk to human health," he said.
"The intent is to monitor the air over time so that corrective actions can be implemented so those air levels can be ratcheted down," he explained.
On both dates, according to Dickerson, "work was stopped, corrective actions were developed, and work was not allowed to proceed until those corrective actions were in place." Air monitoring was also stepped up to daily rather than monthly.
Dickerson described how GE's contractor, Sevenson Environmental Services of Amenia, N.Y., brought in a dive team on April 24 and May 2 to identify the underwater disturbances and minimize "sediment disturbance" that caused the airborne release and the appearance of an oil-like sheen on the lake's surface.
"We're requiring GE to do the daily air monitoring," Dickerson said, "and the levels have dropped below the ‘action level,' but we're still awaiting monitoring results from Monday and Tuesday of this week."
As of Friday, those results had not been posted on the EPA's website.
Following the completion of debris removal such as large tree limbs, old piers, bulkheads and submerged cars, GE will be ordered to conduct weekly air monitoring until three samples fall below notification levels.
Contaminated PCB sediment and shoreline soil already has been removed, Dickerson said, adding that the lake will be "capped" with sand, stone and gravel material to contain any remaining chemicals. PCBs were released into the lake and the Housatonic River by GE from 1932 to 1977.
"We want to have a track record once the capping starts that we're not having any issues with air quality," he said.
All contaminated material from the lake is being shipped to a licensed disposal facility in Michigan, said the two on-site GE project managers, Andrew Silfer and Richard Gates.
The lack of direct, immediate notification to the Silver Lake neighborhood about the air-quality problems was targeted by Judy Herkimer, director of the Housatonic Environmental Action League.
"This is really unacceptable," Herkimer said. "This is a very contaminated body of water. I'm stumped by how many ‘action levels' you have, and you give us the pat answer of how many decades of exposure people would have to have in order to adversely affect them.
"Guess what," she said angrily, "they've been living there for decades being adversely affected, breathing in volatilized PCBs. This happens, and the neighbors aren't even notified."
In response, Dean Tagliaferro of the EPA stated that air-monitoring results from April 24 and May 2 were posted on the agency's site on May 9.
In response to a complaint by city resident Valerie Andersen of the Housatonic Clean River Coalition that only the federal agency was notified about the air-quality issue, EPA spokesman Jim Murphy said that the city of Pittsfield and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA) were contacted.
"They understood that our protocols were in place," he said.
"I find that wholly inadequate," Andersen responded. "Posting it on an obscure website that regular citizens don't routinely check didn't even take place until seven days after the occurrence, so how could anybody take any action, even shutting their windows?"
Murphy later acknowledged that it's a "reasonable request" for residents to seek immediate notification.
During the 2 1/2-hour session, Jane Wynn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, asked why the EPA is presenting information rather than GE.
Addressing the EPA's Dickerson, Wynn asserted that "EPA is now putting you in the position of us being angry with you when GE should be doing the presentations about the work they've been doing."
"Fair point," replied Dickerson. "We do oversee the project and we want to see it done well."
Gates, the GE project manager, added that "we feel it's best for EPA to present."
"This makes it look like GE and EPA are the same thing," Wynn said. "I think there should be a greater degree of separation."