Concerns grow as GE identifies three potential sites for PCB dumps
LENOX — Concern is growing over the possibility that GE could dump contaminated PCB material on three potential local sites from a potential massive dredging and excavation of the likely cancer-causing chemical along the Housatonic River from southeast Pittsfield into Lenox.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's final decision on the Rest of River cleanup of PCB-laden soil and sediment is still weeks, if not months, away.
Acknowledging that the ruling has taken longer than expected, EPA Community Relations official Jim Murphy told The Eagle that "we're saying it should come by the end of the summer."
The agency's "intended final decision" issued last Sept. 30 called for a $613 million, 13-year project requiring GE to excavate most of the PCBs heavily contaminating a 10.5-mile stretch of the Housatonic between Fred Garner Park in southeast Pittsfield and the worst "hot spot," Woods Pond in Lenox. There, the EPA has found PCB concentrations in wildlife are 100 times the limit considered safe.
But within a month, GE blasted the proposed remedy as "arbitrary, capricious" and "unlawful," aiming its harshest criticism at the EPA's insistence that under Massachusetts environmental regulations, the contaminated material must be shipped to a licensed out-of-state facility.
Instead, the company has targeted three sites near the river where the PCBs could be dumped — a landfill at Lane Construction on the Lee-Lenox line, an area off Forest Street in Lee, and the Rising Pond vicinity in the Great Barrington village of Housatonic.
GE insisted that its preferred sites would be safe while acknowledging that the company would save at least $250 million by avoiding a requirement to ship the material out of state. The company has predicted that 100,000 trips by dump trucks would be required.
The EPA plan would remove 89 percent of the PCB contamination flowing over the dam at Woods Pond; GE wants to save an additional $130 million by limiting that to 13 percent.
Concerned citizens have staged several rallies in Great Barrington protesting any storage of PCBs in South Berkshire.
If EPA Regional Counsel Carl Dierker's final decision — based on an examination of the agency's proposal, GE's response and other public comment — continues to require out-of-state shipment, a prolonged legal wrangle would be the next phase.
GE or any others who have filed public comments with the agency could take the dispute to the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C., whose four independent judges are the agency's final decision-maker on major controversies.
The company or others dissatisfied with that decision could then take the dispute to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
The EPA is caught in the middle between GE's fierce opposition to its proposed cleanup plan and an insistence by some environmental advocates, notably Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative, that the government's remedy is inadequate and that a more extensive, expensive cleanup costing over $900 million over a 50-year period should have been recommended.
"We've heard GE saying, you're taking too much out, you're going to hurt the river; other people saying you're not taking enough out, you're gonna hurt the river and all the critters," the EPA's Murphy has pointed out. "We're someplace in the middle. We're hearing criticism from both sides, that's not a surprise."
The two sides don't even agree on how much PCB contamination remains in the river. GE says 70,000 pounds, the EPA puts it at 600,000 pounds.
In response to an Eagle query, the company issued a statement late Thursday: "GE will clean the Housatonic Rest of River. The only question is how it will be cleaned. We remain committed to a common sense solution for the Housatonic Rest of River that protects human health and the environment, does not result in unnecessary destruction of the surrounding habitat, and is cost-effective."
According to David Lurie, public relations manager for GE Corporate, "EPA has repeatedly approved and implemented on-site disposal in many other instances across the country and in Massachusetts, including in New Bedford where EPA was responsible for funding the disposal costs. As recently as December an EPA spokesman said that on-site disposal options for the Rest of River remedy are 'just as safe' as out-of-state disposal."
In his only recent public comment, GE's CEO Jeffrey Immelt defended his company in response to a question from public radio station WBUR's reporter during an April 4 celebration of the company's upcoming relocation of its headquarters to Boston.
He stated that the company has already spent $500 million on the Housatonic cleanup in Pittsfield over the past decade. GE, which employed about 13,000 people in the city during the 1940s, discharged PCBs into the Housatonic from its former electrical transformer plant in the city from 1932 to 1977, two years before the U.S. banned use of the chemical.
"You know, we have a certain perspective on how we think it should be done, and we plan to stand up for what we think is right," Immelt said. "We've done more dredging than any other company on earth, I'd have to say. It's our intention to work well with the governor and the EPA to do another successful project on the Housatonic."
In its documents, the EPA has detailed adverse health effects that "PCBs have been demonstrated to cause, including cancer. PCBs also cause serious non-cancer 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."
In Lenox, which would suffer a major impact from an extensive excavation project, Select Board Chairman Warren Archey is urging consideration of "nanotechnology," an alternative approach to river restoration as suggested in an article by Nature Conservancy science writer Cara Byington.
Archey told board members that it's worth exploring "whether that process, bioremediation, can be used, rather than digging [PCBs] out of the river and throwing them somewhere else."
"I'm absolutely convinced that GE's plan to stick the stuff somewhere else just doesn't make it," Archey contended. "No matter where the 'somewhere else' is, that's the problem, especially locally, where it's a bigger problem."
"I hope we're all of the notion that we should neutralize these things rather than throw them somewhere else," he added. "It's a big, big issue, truly complex."
Selectman Kenneth Fowler agreed that it would be in the town's best interests to determine whether newly emerging technology could restore the river. "I'd like to see that exhausted before we go to dredging and everything that goes along with that," he said.
"The cleanup and remediation that follows it must emphasize minimizing adverse environmental impacts, and should leave the river free to flow within natural banks, not riprap channels," according to Lenox resident George Darey, board chairman of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. "Hopefully, town officials will be diligent in not allowing PCBs to be dumped in Berkshire County."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
EPA Rest of River Plan. . .
These are among the most significant recommendations the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included in its intended final decision issued Sept. 30. The agency's regional counsel in Boston is preparing a final decision, expected by the end of this summer:
— 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 off-site at an existing licensed facility out of state.
More information: www.epa.gov/ge-housatonic.
Housatonic Rest of River Timeline. . .
2000: The U.S. District Court in Springfield issued 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 performed 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 called 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 engaged in a series of technical discussions with representatives of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
May 2012: The two states issued a status report proposing a cleanup that included an estimated 990,000 cubic yards, slightly less than the 2011 EPA proposal.
2012-2013: At GE's request, EPA held discussions with the company until late in 2013, but did 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 received 2,100 pages of public comments from over 140 commenters.
September 2015: EPA issued its "Intended Final Decision" leading to the current dispute resolution. Similarly, the decision required the removal of about 990,000 cubic yards of material. Within 30 days, GE faulted the findings as "arbitrary, capricious, unlawful."
September 2016 (tentative): EPA's final decision from its regional counsel in Boston is expected by the end of this summer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.