GREAT BARRINGTON -- A North Carolina company wants to show local state and federal officials it has an alternative, less costly solution to creating a possible PCB landfill as part of the anticipated cleanup of the Housatonic River.
Next month, BioTech Restorations plans to formally ask the federal Environmental Protection Agency permission to test 100 samples of PCB contaminated sediment from the river, according to the Housatonic River Initiative. HRI Executive Director Tim Gray says the company hopes to prove that any sediment dredged from PCB "hot spots" in the river can be treated on site, rather than hauled away and buried, likely in Berkshire County.
If approved by the EPA, the test results would be published next spring.
"[BioTech] wants to do a pilot test -- for free," Gray said. "This process is the most promising alternative ... and we hope GE gets interested in this as it would save them money."
Gray outlined Biotech's proposal during a two-hour forum in Great Barrington on Tuesday night to update the public on the so called "Rest of the River" remediation of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Company President Chris Young was expected to personally address the meeting, but he couldn't attend due to a family medical emergency.
Led by HRI, eight local environmental groups have banded together to step up their opposition to a possible PCB landfill resulting from the second phase of the cleanup.
While the EPA has publicly stated a PCB landfill won't be part of its proposed "Rest of the River" cleanup plan for GE, local environmentalists doubt the company will go along with that federal agency's scenario. The EPA is expected to outline a cleanup plan in the next few months.
An EPA representative was among the nearly 30 concerned Berkshire citizens and environmental activists gathered at the First Congregational Church who were intrigued by BioTech's remediation process.
"We have been in communication with BioTech and are awaiting more details," said Jim Murphy, spokesman for EPA Region 1, New England. "We've been clear we would like to work with them or (explore) another alternative method to see if it works."
Gray pointed to success PCB cleanups in California using the BioTech process, which prevents the chlorine in PCBs from blocking natural occurring bacteria in the soil from breaking down the rest of the chemical compound.
Pittsfield resident Barbara Cianfarini urged residents to pressure the EPA to seriously consider the BioTech proposal.
"We have to hold [government] agencies' feet to the fire; we have to hold GE's feet to the fire," said Cianfarini, a founding member of Citizens for PCB Removal.
The expanded PCB cleanup from southern Pittsfield to the Connecticut border is expected to include dredging of contaminated sediment from a 10-mile section of the river south of Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield.
The PCBs leached into the Housatonic from the former GE transformer plant in Pittsfield. The chemical, a suspected carcinogen, was banned by the U.S. government in 1977.
Whatever cleanup method is used, local environmentalists say they must remain united for a long battle to ensure a sensible cleanup plan that will hasten the river's recovery from years of pollution.
Landfills should be ruled out as they have a finite life and no cleanup is definitely not an option, according to Peter de Fur, a risk assessment specialist from Richmond, Va.
"This notion we can ‘Let it go' doesn't work," said de Fur, who has has studied and consulted on numerous cleanups of PCBs, pesticides and other toxic chemicals across the country, including the Housatonic River. "There is still an opportunity for those chemicals to move on if left alone."
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