Toxic legacy left behind



While Berkshire County's once industrious mills have now largely ceased operation, the impact they've had on the environment is still visible.

Contaminated brownfields and polluted rivers have been left behind in some county locations. Some of these mill buildings still stand like fortresses, but are withering from neglect.

Nathaniel Karns, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said most of the former mill sites contain some contamination "but nothing that is truly alarming."

However, Karns said, "there are al ways exceptions to that blanket statement."

Today, the state Department of En vironmental Protection and federal Environmental Protection Agency might ask for monthly reports and hold annual inspections on the companies that are still operating mills to oversee discharge and the impact on the environment. But for a long time government oversight of these properties was more lax.

It wasn't until the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 that the federal government became serious about protecting the environment, according to multiple people familiar with the county's mill properties.

"Most of the pollution issues were based on common practice from 50 years ago," Karns said.

In 40 years working for Crane & Co., environmental project specialist Paul Knauth said he's noticed a sea change in the attitude regarding waste disposal. The momentum started with the Clean Water Act. The focus then turned to minimizing pollutant output and from there on how to turn that output into resources.

Following in step, Crane takes about 10 to 15 dry tons of waste each day produced from its paper manufacturing operations, along with three to four million gallons of daily treated water then converts this material into soil compost that is then sent to Springfield.

Planning and environmental ex perts say there are no countywide studies on mills and the environment, so the impact is hard to pinpoint by pollution levels or cleanup cost numbers. But there are anecdotes that tell the story.

While the Pittsfield-based Rice Silk Mill's conversion into affordable housing is a prime example of positive restoration, it hasn't been easy to obtain the funding needed to demolish abandoned mills and return the properties to use.

The Williamstown Select Board, for example, is trying to bring affordable housing to the former Photech site, which was used by a series of photographic paper companies. However, the restoration was only possible after the EPA removed contaminated waste, asbestos and contaminated wastewater after the last tenant, Photech, abandoned the site in 1989.

With no traceable owners to hold liable, the EPA in 1989 designated $450,000 from its fund to clean up Superfund sites -- areas with uncontrolled hazardous waste -- as a way to decontaminate the property, according to a Williams College report that was commissioned by the town in 2003.

A situation similar to the one at Photech has occurred in Great Barrington at the former New Eng land Log Homes site. Like Photech, this property may also need to be capped due to the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were banned by the federal government in 1977, and dioxins, waste products left behind by a textile factory that occupied the site for 60 years.

Local environmentalists have not conducted specific studies of the Berkshire mills, so they could only speak about their impact on the environment in general terms.

Both the Hoosic and Housatonic rivers have been contaminated with PCBs, which are considered to be a probable cause of cancer, and have been linked in studies to developmental problems in children. Such contamination means people can't consume the fish that live in these waters.

While the PCB contamination in the Housatonic River can largely be traced to General Electric's former power transformer plant in Pittsfield, dams located downstream from the Berkshire's largest city have proven to be a collection source for these contaminants. Referring to the Columbia Mill complex in Lee, Karns said it will be difficult for investors to finance business operations on that property until PCB contamination is removed from behind the mill's dam on the Housatonic River.

"It is not marketable, although someone has a purchase and sale (agreement) on the property," Karns said. "I can't imagine they'd assume the liability or get the money to finance."

The soil behind dams like the Columbia Mills' may be contaminated, but fish tend to congregate in those places, and plant life thrives.

"Dams, by definition, whether you want them or want to get rid of them, those systems create ecosystems," said Director Tom Coote, of the Berkshire Research Center at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington. "You'll have some species assemblage and you'll replace those with a different species assemblage."

To reach John Sakata:,
or (413) 496-6240.
Twitter: @jsakata


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.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions