Long-awaited Pittsfield biotech center faces environmental hurdle
PITTSFIELD — The planned Berkshire Innovation Center on former General Electric Co. land must vault another hurdle, this one tied to the site's legacy of environmental degradation.
Before people younger than 18 are allowed to take part in the $13.8 million center's educational activities, the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority must prove that remaining toxins on the property fall below allowable levels.
Corydon Thurston, PEDA's executive director, calls the needed environmental review "more of a bureaucratic process than anything" and is confident that the nonprofit center will rise as planned.
"The BIC site has to go through a few hoops before and during construction," he said. "It's just another permit that's required for this to take place."
But as of now, an easement forbids use of the site by people younger than 18, hobbling the center's vocational and training mission.
The state Department of Environmental Protection says the center is entitled to seek changes in the easement. But it notes that work required to win that change could involve additional soil sampling and, possibly, further steps to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that remain on the land from GE's manufacturing of electrical transformers.
PCBs are listed as a probable carcinogen and were banned in 1979. The substance was used for decades by GE. Despite steps to remove it from soils on the sprawling 52-acre property after GE's departure, it remains present at varying levels — triggering the ban on certain uses of contaminated land by young people.
The center, proposed a decade ago, is months from an expected groundbreaking after securing another $2.3 million in state money.
Despite getting that last cash infusion, a milestone celebrated by state and city officials at a City Hall gathering March 9, the center must still attempt to amend what's known as a Environmental Restriction and Easement.
Those rules, last revised in June 2013, are designed to protect people from exposure to PCBs.
For years, the center has been hailed as a key piece of Berkshire County's economic revival.
The project will provide lab, office and training space for life sciences companies. And it is designed to spur biotech innovation in the state's westernmost county. The first state money came in 2008 through a $6.5 million allocation that was part of a $1 billion life sciences initiative backed by former Gov. Deval Patrick.
If PEDA cannot secure a change in the site's environmental easement, the center would not be able to allow young people to take part in its tech and life sciences projects.
Thurston calls that element of the center's work "absolutely important ... it's vocational."
"A minor, but very important part of the BIC mission will be to provide entrepreneurs with the opportunity to hire interns with the BIC's student internship program," engineers working for PEDA wrote to environmental officials last fall.
Along with recruiting high school or college interns for participating companies, the center plans tours and field trips, science and career fairs and other community programs that would attract people younger than 18.
Initially, PEDA tried to win DEP approval to allow the center to work with people younger than 18 without doing any additional environmental reviews or further cleanup, known as remediation.
In November, an engineering company explored whether the easement prevented the center from working on the property with young people. In a Nov. 20, 2017, letter to the DEP, the firm O'Reilly, Talbot & Okun reviewed the center's mission and the terms of the easement, on behalf of PEDA.
The letter, sent by James E. Gagnon and Edward J. Weagle, tested the theory that the easement didn't apply.
"PEDA believes that there are benefits to discussing the planned use to determine whether or not it should be deemed an educational activity," they wrote. "Our aim is to reach a common interpretation ... and to ensure that the health and safety for all citizens that visit or work on the redeveloped land ... will be protected."
But the DEP quickly confirmed that the center's wish to involve high school students and others younger than 18 was prohibited.
John Ziegler, a section chief with the DEP's western region, replied Dec. 1, 2017, that "plain and clear language" in the easement restricts use of the site by people younger than 18.
Their presence, Ziegler wrote, "is not subject to interpretation. We have consulted with the U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency] on this matter and they fully concur with our determination."
When the 52-acre former GE property was prepared for possible new uses, the degree of remediation varied. For instance, the edges of nearby Silver Lake were cleaned to a greater degree, as were play areas and ballfields, Thurston notes.
The planned BIC location at East Street and Woodlawn Avenue is designed to be used for light-industrial or office use, according to the DEP.
The environmental easement in place prohibits uses that could expose young people to residual PCBs.
For instance, it bars day care programs, educational activities and recreational activity of any kind. Also prohibited: residential and agricultural uses.
In their effort to avoid the need to amend the easement, the O'Reilly, Talbot & Okun engineers floated an apples and oranges argument. People younger than 18 who might take part in BIC programs would not constitute "high frequency and high intensity use."
Though the DEP disagreed, Thurston maintains that the site already is safe. He notes that other parcels on former GE land do not carry the same restriction. Retail ventures, for instance, can employ people younger than 18.
The contour of the proposed BIC site was shaped with extensive fill that is as much as 14 feet deep in places, he said.
"PCBs that are capped and covered stay there," Thurston said. "All the properties are safe. We want to reassure everyone that none of the agencies are going to approve construction if there are any safety issues whatsoever."
Catherine Skiba, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the agency backs redevelopment of the parcel, known as Site #3, and will provide technical help.
"The process requires further assessment of the site as well as potential additional remediation to assure it is safe for children," she said.
Additional cleanup might not prove necessary, Skiba said, but more study will be needed to determine that.
"It is certainly feasible for PEDA to amend the [easement] and they have amended these in the past," Skiba said in a statement in response to questions from The Eagle.
She did not respond to a question about the accuracy of Thurston's claim that the problem concerns "semantics and paperwork that we have to go through." She also did not comment on how the DEP views the level of public health concerns at the site, or Thurston's assertion that capped PCBs remain in place.
Skiba did not provide an estimate on how long it takes to change the easement.
In his Dec. 1, 2017, letter to PEDA's engineering firm, Ziegler appeared to defend the existence of the restriction.
"The [easement] was developed to prevent future site users from potential health effects as the cleanup and restoration of the site allowed for [PCBs] to remain in site soil at concentrations that would be protective for certain site activities and uses," Ziegler wrote.
By "protective," the agency refers to concentrations high enough to require restrictions to safeguard human health.
In coming months, the BIC project will go back out to bid. Officials said March 9 that they hope to break ground this summer and finish the 20,000-square-foot center in late 2019.
Thurston said work to amend the easement should not add to the cost of the project or further delay a groundbreaking.
PEDA received a $260,000 brownfields grant several years ago that can help pay for additional cleanup work, he said.
While the DEP says new testing might be needed, Thurston said his agency has access to data from work on a utility corridor on the site.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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