The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doubling down on its commitment seeking GE shipment of PCB-contaminated material from the pending Rest of River cleanup on the Housatonic south of Pittsfield to an out-of-state, licensed facility.
The agency, citing strong public interest over the terms of the cleanup, issued a status update on Wednesday afternoon stressing its long-standing recommendation that the contaminants be transported out of Berkshire County by truck or rail.
As part of its wide-ranging rejection of the EPA's "intended final decision" on the cleanup, GE wants to seal the material at one of three sites — a Lane Construction Co. landfill in Lenox Dale, a location off Forest Street in Lee, and/or a site near Rising Pond in the Great Barrington village of Housatonic.
"To correct any misunderstandings, EPA wanted to make clear where we stand," stated Kelsey O'Neil, the community involvement coordinator and Congressional liaison for the agency.
O'Neil said the next formal step under the court-ordered Consent Decree issued in 2000 governing the cleanup is an EPA final decision to be issued by a Boston-based legal counsel for the agency.
The "intended final decision" had been issued last September in consultation with environmental agencies in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But GE disputed it in a strongly worded 40-page document, thus requiring a "dispute resolution" decision by the EPA's Boston-based regional counsel Carl Dierker.
That decision will be followed by an EPA work order detailing GE's cleanup requirements, which include dredging and excavation of PCB "hot spots" between Fred Garner Park in southeast Pittsfield and Woods Pond in Lenox. Less invasive cleanup remedies are sought to the south at points from Lee to Great Barrington.
But it's widely anticipated that GE will challenge the cleanup permit to the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C. Additional appeals by GE and other stakeholders could follow at the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
The new EPA status report included a summary of the government's major PCB cleanup requirements:
• Excavation and backfill of an estimated 990,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated material;
• Containment and capping of remaining PCBs;
• Monitored Natural Recovery where appropriate;
• Use of a sediment amendment, such as activated carbon, to reduce mobility of PCBs.
• Disposal of excavated material offsite at an existing licensed facility.
PCBs, likely to cause cancer, were deposited into the river at GE's electrical transformer plant in Pittsfield from 1932 until 1977, just before the U.S. government banned the chemicals.
In Wednesday's EPA update, O'Neil disputed a published report that "mistakenly stated that GE was originally asked to remove almost three times the amount of soil it is responsible for today, but that EPA had compromised with GE to allow for a speedier cleanup."
"This is incorrect," O'Neil asserted, pointing to a set of eight proposed alternatives. While one of the options, which ranged from no action to a 50-year, $1 billion cleanup, did include disposal of three times the volume of contaminated material, "EPA never asked, directed or indicated that this was EPA's preferred remedy in any document."
O'Neil listed a half-dozen documents ranging from a 2011 proposal to the intended final decision issued last September.
"To correct any confusion regarding EPA's position on disposal of PCBs, to reiterate, the EPA's recommendation for disposal of excavated material is for offsite disposal at an existing licensed facility," the new status report said. "EPA's recommendation has been consistent in all its proposals."
Last March, GE rejected the EPA's $613 million, 13-year plan to cleanse the Housatonic River of most toxic PCBs along a 10-mile stretch between southeast Pittsfield and Woods Pond in Lenox.
The company asserted that the agency had exceeded its authority by releasing an "arbitrary, capricious, and otherwise unlawful" decision.
GE sharply disputed the EPA's position, which is supported by the state Department of Environmental Protection, that contaminated soil and sediment must be shipped to a licensed out-of-state facility. The company contended that on-site disposal would save about $250 million.
The EPA proposed to cut 89 percent of the PCB contamination in Woods Pond; GE wants to save an additional $130 million by limiting that to 13 percent.
The EPA update detailed the list of adverse health effects that "PCBs have been demonstrated to cause, including cancer. PCBs also cause serious, noncancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other organs."
The agency cited studies in humans providing "supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs."
For more information, visit www.epa.gov/ge-housatonic.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
Rest of River Timeline ...
2000: The U.S. District Court in Springfield issues a decree requiring specific actions for 25 PCB cleanups in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River. All but three have been completed, but for the Rest of River section of the Housatonic, more information gathering was needed before a cleanup could proceed. GE and EPA perform risk assessments, modeling and sampling, leading to an analysis of alternative cleanup approaches.
2011: EPA issues its proposed cleanup requirements for review by EPA's National Remedy Review Board, and accepted comments from GE and the public. The remedy calls for excavation of 1,070,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated material, containment and monitoring, with off-site disposal. Based on the public and GE's comments, EPA then engages in a series of technical discussions with representatives of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
May 2012: The two states issue a status report proposing a cleanup that includes an estimated 990,000 cubic yards, slightly less than the 2011 EPA proposal.
2012-13: At GE's request, EPA holds discussions with the company, but do not reach any agreements with GE.
2014: EPA issues a draft cleanup proposal for a formal, four-month comment period. This permit also required the removal of about 990,000 cubic yards of material. EPA receives 2,100 pages of public comments from over 140 commenters.
September 2015: EPA issues its "Intended Final Decision" leading to the current dispute resolution. Similarly, the decision requires the removal of about 990,000 cubic yards of material, although some material in the vernal pools may be treated with a sediment amendment instead of being excavated and restored.