EPA releases updated Housatonic River cleanup plan
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delivered its marching orders to General Electric for a massive, $613 million PCB cleanup project.
The cleanup includes excavation and capping of most PCBs along a 10.5-mile stretch of the Housatonic River between Fred Garner Park in southeast Pittsfield and the heavily contaminated Woods Pond in Lenox.
The agency's "intended final decision" on the plan, issued in consultation with environmental agencies in Massachusetts and Connecticut, updates its original proposal unveiled in June 2014.
It calls for dredging the suspected cancer-causing chemicals from eight miles of the river, including Woods Pond. Two miles of less-extensive hot-spot removal would stretch from the Pittsfield-Lenox border south to Roaring Brook in Lenox.
From start to finish, the project, known as the "Rest of River" segment of the Housatonic cleanup, would extend over 13 years, with most of the major work during the first eight years.
The dredging, excavation and capping of soil and sediment from the waterway, riverbank, backwaters and floodplain would eliminate 89 percent of the toxins that now spill over the dam at Woods Pond, according to the EPA. Woods Pond would be excavated and then refilled to a greater depth, up to 6 feet, compared to the current 3 feet.
During that phase, an estimated 43,000 truck trips, bringing in clean fill and removing contaminated material, would be required.
Downstream, a reduced-impact cleanup is proposed south of Lenox to Great Barrington, including Rising Pond in the village of Housatonic.
Overall, the project would require GE to "address PCB contamination" in river sediment, banks, floodplain soil and the river's animal and plant life that poses "unacceptable risks to human health and to the environment," the EPA document stated.
When completed, the agency stated, the cleanup would reduce downstream transport of PCBs, allow for relaxing or removing fish consumption advisories, and avoid, minimize or reduce harmful impacts to state-listed species and their habitats regulated under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.
The start date for the project remains uncertain since GE has until Oct. 30 to dispute the EPA's work order through administrative hearings before the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board.
If no settlement is reached with the company, the EPA will issue a final decision, which could trigger a legal appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston by the company, state and local governments or groups and members of the public who submitted formal comments last year.
Even after all appeals are exhausted and the EPA permit for the project is issued, design work is expected to require two to three years.
There will be no public comment period for the EPA's provisional final plan. However, the Housatonic Citizens Coordinating Council, a working group representing stakeholders, has an open meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18 at the Lenox Library.
The original proposal triggered public meetings, formation of a committee representing six communities along the river from Pittsfield to Sheffield, and numerous comments, which EPA will address in writing once the final permit for the work is issued.
As outlined in the plan, contaminated PCB material would be trucked or shipped by rail out of the county to a federally licensed waste disposal facility.
GE discharged PCBs into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield electrical transformer plant from the 1930s until 1977, when the U.S. government banned the use of the chemical.
A revision in the EPA's "intended final decision" requires GE to conduct "appropriate future response actions" after the project's completion but eliminates a requirement for the company "to pay for incremental costs associated with the presence of PCBs."
Another change from the June 2014 proposal adds safeguards "to enhance coordination with impacted municipalities and landowners during design and construction."
The provisional decision also waives "certain additional laws and regulations where it has been determined that it is technically impractical to comply with such regulations in conducting the cleanup."
The just-released plan also offers approaches to the cleanup of contaminated vernal pools either by using activated carbon to reduce PCBs or, if that is ineffective, by excavating and restoring the pools.
GE would be required to return areas of the riverbed, riverbanks, floodplain and wetland habitat to the same conditions prior to the cleanup through a detailed restoration plan.
The EPA's plan also states that any new release of hazardous waste to the environment during the cleanup must be minimized by GE by taking "all reasonable steps ... to prevent significant adverse impacts on human health and/or the environment."
In addition, GE must maintain air monitoring and "dust suppression measures" until excavation and transportation of the material, and the capping of soil and sediment, is completed.
The leading environmental advocate for the river threw ice water on the cleanup plan on Monday.
"We believe this is the weakest cleanup plan ever put out for any river in the nation," said Tim Grey, the Housatonic Riverkeeper and executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative. "We feel it sets the stage for leaving massive amounts of PCBs in the river and it opens a big legal hole for leaving dumps along the river."
Grey, 62, who has been involved in the PCB saga since he began collecting river samples in 1976, said his group and a coalition of other environmental groups "which are all on the same page" believe that the plan will leave the river contaminated for many years to come.
A company statement issued Monday declared that "GE will be carefully reviewing EPA's intended final decision. We look forward to working with EPA toward a common sense solution for the Rest of River that protects human health and the environment as well as complies with the Pittsfield-Housatonic Consent Decree approved by the federal court."
The Rest of River project is the final element of a cleanup outlined in a consent decree involving GE, the U.S. EPA, Massachusetts and Connecticut state agencies, the city of Pittsfield and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. The decree, a civil action by the U.S. vs. GE, was filed in U.S. District Court, Springfield, in October 2000.
Before proposing its remedy, the EPA considered nine options ranging from no action to a nearly $1 billion, 50-year project. It chose the third most far-reaching approach.
GE's PCB removal from two miles of the river south of the former GE plant was completed in 2006 at a cost of about $100 million, followed by a cleanup of Silver Lake and nearby areas. The company compensated the city through a $25 million economic development fund, including $15 million to help develop the William Stanley Industrial Park.
Project goal: Reduce downstream movement of PCBs, relax or remove fish-consumption warnings, and avoid, minimize or ease impact on wildlife species, especially waterfowl and their habitats along the river.
Cleanup impact: Major portions of the 10.5-mile segment from Fred Garner Park to Woods Pond require excavation and capping of contaminated sediment from the riverbed and from some areas of the floodplain adjoining the river, including vernal pools. Affected areas would be restored.
• A 5-mile stretch from the East and West branch confluence in southeast Pittsfield to the Lenox border requires excavation and restoration of the riverbed and banks.
• A 2-mile segment from the Pittsfield-Lenox border to Roaring Brook in Lenox would require more limited "hot spot" PCB removal.
• Removal of riverbed sediment and capping are planned along the 3 miles between Roaring Brook and the headwaters of Woods Pond, but riverbanks would be left intact.
• Woods Pond: Removal of contaminated sediment and placement of a cap, creating a minimum water depth of six feet.
• Lee and Stockbridge: Either removal of four dams or sediment removal and capping.
• Great Barrington: At Rising Pond in the village of Housatonic, PCBs would be removed and sediment would be capped, or GE could excavate the sediment.
• Downstream: Flowing-river sections through Connecticut would be monitored for natural recovery, relying on physical, chemical and biological techniques to isolate, destroy and otherwise reduce exposure to PCB contamination.
Long-term monitoring: Continuous studies to determine the effectiveness of the cleanup as well as the recovery of the river and floodplain.
Information: The documents provided by the EPA to GE are on the EPA website: http://www2.epa.gov/ge-housatonic
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