Before Rest of River, the last of the land: PCB cleanup on 9 properties starts in May

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PITTSFIELD — Gretchen and Mario Debartolo love their backyard.

The two have spent countless hours pruning and planting a wide array of trees, as well as fruits and vegetables on part of their four acres abutting the Housatonic River.

They knew when they bought their home at 380 Holmes Road nearly 20 years ago that there were some PCBs on the property. Now the federal government says it's time for General Electric to clean up at the Debartolos and on parts of eight other residential sites.

But with the prospect of a separate cleanup of the river itself in the coming years, the Debartolos would just as soon wait.

"Don't bother me until you do the rest of the river because I don't want to go through this twice," Gretchen Debartolo said.

GE has removed PCBs from numerous sites on its property, the city and the Housatonic since a legal document governing the cleanup, known as a consent decree, was finalized in 2000. The company released PCBs, a probable cancer-causing toxin, into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield electric transformer plant for about 40 years. The chemicals were banned by the U.S. government in 1977.

The company and the Environmental Protection Agency are currently engaged in a legal battle over the next phase of PCB removal in the Housatonic from southeast Pittsfield downstream, a plan known as Rest of River. GE is challenging the EPA's directive that the contaminated soil dredged from the river must be taken out of state for disposal.

The residential work, separate from Rest of River, is the the final phase of PCB cleanup outlined by the consent decree. Pittsfield-based Maxymillian Technologies has been contracted by GE for the work which is likely to begin May 15, according to a plan for the project.

That plan for the removal of 5,006 cubic yards of PCB contaminated soil from some properties in Pittsfield, Lenox and Lee is detailed in a 525-page document from GE to the EPA.

Officially known as the "floodplain residential properties," for the Debartolos it's a patch of land that is mostly out of sight and out of mind.

"It's down where no one ever goes," she said. "Wouldn't it be easier to access it from the river instead of trashing the property?"

The contaminated soil, about 730 cubic yards, is located on a patch of land beneath a birch tree on the edge of their property along the Housatonic.

To reach and remove the contaminated soil, several trees would need to be cut down and a temporary road would be installed in the couple's backyard to access the location.

"[The road] would cut right through here," Debartolo said, motioning to the center of their garden.

Debartolo works for a dentist in Pittsfield. Her husband, a former General Electric employee, manufactures specialty speedskating blades in a shop in their basement. The yard is a source of enjoyment, and pride, for them both.

About half of their 4-acre property is home to gardens they've cultivated, including flowers, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and a variety of vegetables.

"We grow most of our own food," she said. "That's how unconcerned I am with PCBs."

The property is the former family home of environmentalist Jane Winn, who had extensively documented the select areas with PCB contamination, Debartolo said.

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"She literally laid everything on the table," including maps and soil sample test results, Debartolo said. The couple bought the house in 1998.

"We bought it before the consent decree," she said. "It was a risky thing but we loved the house."

The property is about a mile from the confluence, where the east and west branches of the Housatonic meet.

The couple said they listened to noise during the eight-year remediation of the first two miles of the river upstream from them. They know that the Rest of River will mean more work, this time possibly steps away from where they live.

Jim Murphy, EPA community involvement coordinator for the sites, said it may be able to hold off on the removal work at the Debartolo property.

"It's their property and we want to accommodate them as best we can," he said.

Although he declined to discuss their names, Murphy said agreements to conduct the work have been reached with seven of the nine property owners.

Attempts by The Eagle to reach the other owners were unsuccessful prior to deadline.

Determining which residential properties needed to have contaminated soil removed has been years in the making.

More recently, numerous soil samples were taken on 41 properties, deemed to be "actual or potential lawn," to help GE and the EPA determine sites where PCB contamination levels exceeded 2 parts per million in the soil, Murphy said.

"The thing we are most concerned about is the top foot because that is where there is likely to be exposure," although sampling went to four feet in certain areas, Murphy said.

Air monitoring for both PCBs and particulates — dust — will be conducted with EPA oversight throughout the work.

Dust sampling will be conducted in real time and work would stop if the air was found to exceed safe particulate levels. Murphy said steps would be taken to correct the problem, wetting the area with water or a special foam. Once levels returned to a safe level, work would resume.

Contaminated soil removed from the properties will be temporarily stored at GE's Building 65 in Pittsfield until it can be trucked to off-site disposal facilities.

GE has identified six possible off-site locations, all of which are out-of-state. The amount of contamination in the soil will help determine the exact location it will eventually be moved to.

GE will notify the EPA of its specific long-term plans at a later date, according to its letter.

Restoration work includes replanting of grass, trees and shrubs on the properties where owners have requested or agreed to it.

GE will also restore a wetlands on part of a property in Lee and "potential" vernal pool on part of the land at 345 New Lenox Road. The potential pool will be reseeded with a wetland seed mix, and have a layer of at least two inches of leaf litter mulch, the letter explains.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo


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