Hill 78: Elevated contaminants stir buried fears in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Long-buried hazardous waste is creeping into the minds of city councilors, who voiced concern recently over elevated levels in groundwater samples.

Groundwater monitoring conducted by General Electric Co., reported to councilors last week, showed above-benchmark levels of toxic chemicals in its two landfills just south of Allendale Elementary School. While the levels exceeded guidelines, Health Director Gina Armstrong said, they haven't risen to actionable levels.

Councilors on the City Council Committee on Public Health and Safety grappled with just how much toxic chemicals constitutes too much, and what to do about it.

"I'm seeing this and the fear is starting to rise in me," council President Peter Marchetti said. "When we are past the levels that we say are OK, and we get told it's OK, well then why do we have that level then?"

GE had been dumping PCBs into the Housatonic River for years until the government banned the toxic substance in the late 1970s. During the mandated cleanup that came in the following decades, GE put contaminated materials at two agreed-upon sites near their Pittsfield plant.

The waste sites, known as consolidation areas, reside along Tyler Street Extension, near Virginia Avenue. Hazardous waste is stored within insulated tanks at Building 71, while Hill 78 houses the less contaminated materials in what councilors described as an "unlined" storage area. GE is required to monitor and maintain the area around the site, and file regular reports with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The volatile organic compounds that raised hairs for councilors in the company's most recent report were trichloroethylene, or TCE, and tetrachloroethylene, known as PCE.

Marchetti suggested the committee meet more frequently in light of the concerning levels, and the council subcommittee requested Armstrong get clarification from the Environmental Protection Agency on some of the councilors' questions.

"Even if it's only a minute level over, there's gotta be a conversation I think," Marchetti said.

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Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, called the increased levels cause for alarm.

"These were lines drawn in the sand for us in the public to be safe," she said.

Winn and some of the councilors said they were worried about the contaminated groundwater seeping back into the Housatonic River, as the GE report indicates that's the direction in which the groundwater flows.

Councilor at large Pete White wanted to know if there's enough groundwater sampling happening at Hill 78, which he described as "an unlined pile of stuff."

The city can take a much more proactive approach to the issue, Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon said, citing bioremediation as a relatively inexpensive tool to explore.

"I'm wondering if that's a conversation to be had," she said.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi, who chairs the committee, said these questions suggest a need to review the issue more than twice a year.

"I think that sends out a warning that we should definitely be active as a committee," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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