A just-released federal government proposal recommends a massive cleanup of PCB contamination from "hot spots" along a 10.5-mile stretch of the Housatonic River from south Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox.
The cleanup, including removal of the likely cancer-causing chemicals by excavating, dredging and capping sediment in targeted zones, would cost GE an estimated $613 million and require about 13 years to complete, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan.
In a statement released Monday, the company said it is reviewing the proposal.
GE released PCBs into the river from its Pittsfield electric transformer plant from 1932 until the substance was banned by the U.S. government in 1977.
Here are the key goals of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal for a Housatonic River PCB cleanup project from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield through Lenox and points south:
- Reduce the mass of PCBs in Housatonic River sediment and floodplain soil available for exposure and down stream transport.
- Reduce the potential movement of PCBs from the river onto the floodplain, from the banks into the river, and from upstream to downstream locations, including the downstream transport into Connecticut.
- Transport of all contaminated soil and sediments off-site to existing licensed facilities approved to receive such soil and sediment, thereby avoiding the need to construct new landfills in the watershed.
- Reduce contamination and risk for fish, wildlife, and other organisms in the river, backwaters, floodplain, and vernal pools.
- Reduce risks to children and adults from direct contact with soil and sediment.
- Reduce soil contamination in the floodplain to levels which allow continued recreational use without unacceptable risk.
- Reduce PCB concentrations in fish to levels that allow increased consumption of fish caught from the river in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and reduce impact to affected communities relying on the fish for economic considerations or cultural practices.
- Reduce PCB surface water and sediment concentrations by addressing PCB sources in sediment and soil to advance future compliance with water quality standards in Massachusetts and Connecticut and attainment of the highest possible use of the river consistent with the Clean Water Act.
- Provide flexibility to address potential removal of dams in the river, changes in floodplain use over time, and consideration of new technologies that may be useful in the future.
- Protect and preserve the unique ecological characteristics of the Upper Housatonic Watershed in conducting remedial efforts.
- Establish procedures to address PCB contamination associated with future work.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "Rest of River" proposal
The EPA stated that the "corrective measures" for the Housatonic were developed in consultation with Massachusetts and Connecticut environmental departments. Extensive technical discussions with GE consumed 16 months, ending in failure last December.
"GE made every effort to reach agreement on a common sense remedy for the Housatonic, one that would remove PCBs, but not destroy the sensitive ecosystem," the company stated.
"Unfortunately, we were not able to reach an agreement with EPA, despite the significant concessions we made and offering to perform an extensive cleanup project," the statement added. "In fact, GE offered to implement a PCB removal project in the Housatonic Rest of River far larger than the one proposed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
According to GE corporate spokesman Sebastien Duchamp, the company plans to submit comments and has not officially rejected the proposal that it received for review on Friday.
"We're hoping that GE will take a close look at the proposal," said Robert Cianciarulo, chief of the Massachusetts Superfund program for EPA in Boston. "We think it's the best balanced approach."
He noted that the government's recommended cleanup plan is not the most extensive or expensive of nine options closely studied. It would reduce PCB contamination by 90 percent at the Woods Pond dam, he said.
It's likely to take "a few years" before actual work on the river begins, Cianciarulo pointed out, since public comment periods can be extended and there are multiple routes for appeals by GE or others, including the federal courts.
The official EPA "Rest of River" plan was posted online in advance of the first public informational session set for 6 p.m., Wednesday, June 18, in the 500-seat auditorium at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.
An extended public comment period this summer and a formal hearing will be followed by a final EPA cleanup decision. A key point of the proposal: All contaminated material to be removed from the river sediment, its banks and floodplain soil would be transported out of Berkshire County, preferably by rail, to existing federally licensed facilities approved to receive and dispose of contaminants.
The goal of the project is to reduce downstream movement of PCBs, relax or remove fish-consumption warnings, and avoid, minimize or ease impact on wildlife species, especially waterfowl and their habitats along the river.
A combination of cleanup approaches is proposed by the EPA along designated sections of the river from the merger of its east and west branches at Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to the heavily contaminated Woods Pond in Lenox.
Portions of that 10.5-mile segment, with its "hot spots" of PCBs, would require excavation and capping of contaminated sediment from the riverbed and from some areas of the floodplain adjoining the river, including vernal pools. Affected areas would be restored.
Targeted areas requiring excavation and restoration of the riverbed and banks include a 2-mile stretch of the Housatonic from the Pittsfield wastewater treatment plant to Roaring Brook in Lenox.
The proposal recommends removal of riverbed sediment and capping along the 3 miles between Roaring Brook and the headwaters of Woods Pond, but riverbanks would be left as they are.
Woods Pond itself would require removal of contaminated sediment and placement of a cap, maintaining a minimum water depth of six feet.
"In addition to reducing risks from fish consumption and ecological risks, this action will reduce risks to people from direct contact with the sediment," the proposal states.
The cleanup plan also recommends a cleanup along a stretch of the river in Lee and Stockbridge that includes four dams. Either dam removal or sediment removal and capping is proposed for that section.
In addition, the federal agency is proposing removal of sediment in backwater areas, followed by capping, wherever PCB contamination exceeds certain levels from Fred Garner Park through Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, as far as the Great Barrington town line.
At Rising Pond in Great Barrington, PCBs would be removed and sediment would be capped, or GE could excavate the sediment.
But the flowing-river sections of the Housatonic from Woods Pond south through Connecticut would be monitored for natural recovery, relying on physical, chemical and biological techniques to isolate, destroy and otherwise reduce exposure to PCB contamination.
Other key details of the EPA "Rest of River" proposal include:
- Stabilizing PCB-contaminated riverbanks subject to erosion that could cause the chemicals to be transported downstream, emphasizing use of bioengineering techniques to restore any disturbed banks.
- Maintaining restrictions on eating fish and waterfowl, and other activities where PCBs pose an unacceptable risk until advisories are no longer needed.
- Continuing monitoring over the long-term to determine the effectiveness of the cleanup as well as the recovery of the river and floodplain. Periodic reviews would be conducted to assure the protection of human health and the environment.
The EPA document pointed out that the final permit for the cleanup could differ from the just-announced proposal, depending on public comments.
Also, it will be posted at most city and town halls in communities along the Housatonic -- Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield.
The public comment period extends from June 25 through Aug. 8. Following the June 18 informational session in Lenox and a followup in Kent, Conn., on June 24, a formal public hearing will be scheduled at a site and on a date to be announced. Members of the public can present oral comments for the EPA to consider at that hearing. Details on submitting a written comment are on the website www.epa.gov/region1/ge.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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