WILLIAMSTOWN

Brace yourself for acronyms and chemistry, as we’re discussing what is happening on what appears to be an empty lot off Brown Street between Route 2 and River Street in North Adams.

Williams College students, working last summer with chemistry professors David Richardson and Jay Thoman, found that in the 10 miles of the Hoosic River from North Adams downstream, the level of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was well below the two parts per million that the federal Environmental Protection Agency regards as the threshold for concern. In fact, below one ppm. Except for one stretch.

Near Brown Street, site of a former Sprague Electric plant, the level in the crayfish the students analyzed ranged from eight to 15 ppm -- still very low compared to thousands of ppm prior to the beginning of cleaning up the site over a decade ago, but not satisfactory.

After Sprague left in 1985, Penn Central Railroad purchased Sprague assets in North Adams, which were in turn acquired by American Annuities Group. AAG subsequently changed its name to Great American Financial Resources (GAFRI), still primarily in annuities and insurance. And, as the current owner, spending big bucks on cleaning up PCBs, a suspected carcinogen.

Unlike the Hudson or the Housatonic, the Hoosic is a flashy river, rising quickly in storms and cleansing itself. PCBs, an oily substance that clings to particles of silt, wash quickly down stream. Hence the only reason the fatty tissue in the crayfish (and the trout) contains levels above the background is that PCBs are still getting into the river.

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According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Mike Reed, who is overseeing the clean-up, the soil to the rear of the since-demolished building is contaminated down about 70 feet, an impractical depth to be dug up and carted away, as is being done along the shores of the upper Hudson River and contemplated along the "rest of the [Housatonic] river" in southern Berkshire County. At about nine feet, groundwater intercepts the Brown Street contamination, carrying it into the Hoosic.

GAFRI is currently trying a chemical approach to neutralize the PCBs and trichloroethylene (TCE), a cleaning solvent also present. PCBs, once prized for their inert quality, exist throughout the world and throughout its inhabitants -- a threat because they do not break down easily. TCE is of less concern because it vaporizes quickly.

Because the clean-up continues, restrictions have not yet been placed on future use of the site, except for the Fairgrounds Avenue toxic dump. That has been capped, fenced and cannot be used for anything.

The Brown Street area looks like a vacant lot now, attracting hopes that the North Adams to Williamstown bike path could pass that way and perhaps other environmental amenities instigated by Hoosic River revival. Much of it is in a flood plain, limiting housing or commercial development even without the contamination; nevertheless, having spent millions on the clean-up, it seems likely that once remediating is complete GAFRI will expect a return on its investment.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle
contributor.