Tests to gauge environmental contamination at former Pittsfield factory

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PITTSFIELD — Name an environmental insult, and there's a chance it sits amid rubble at 70 Elmvale Place.

Asbestos? Oh, yeah. A study conducted at the site of the former J.B. Paper Co. property in late 2016 found evidence of that substance — it can cause lung disease — in pipe insulation from a former boiler room.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, known by the shorthand PCBs? That, too. Even before an Aug. 29, 2016, fire swept through the long-vacant factory in a neighborhood north of Wahconah Park, that probable carcinogen had been found during removal of an underground storage tank.

In coming weeks, yet another crew will step onto the fenced site hidden away between the Pittsfield and St. Joseph's cemeteries, near a Housatonic River tributary known as Onota Brook.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission just allocated $25,000 from brownfields funds it oversees to learn what other hazards the property might harbor.

"This is a pretty bad site in terms of existing conditions," said Thomas Matuszko, the commission's executive director.

The work, to be handled by TRC Environmental Corp., comes nearly two years after a fire destroyed buildings on the 4-acre site. The city knocked down the structures soon after the blaze, to protect public safety.

Since then, brush has grown around the edges of the ruined factory, which today lies in a heap of broken bricks, charred wood and twisted metal. One chimney remains.

Matuszko said the brownfields work will include tests for the presence of motor oil and underground tanks.

The assessment, combined with narrower findings from an earlier visual inspection of the property, will help guide future city decisions regarding the property.

"I think it will depend on what they find," Matuszko said. "The assessment game is always tricky."

Nathaniel Joyner, permitting coordinator in the city's Community Development office, said the point of the new review is to determine what hazardous building materials remain within the wreckage of the factory — and even more broadly on the property.

At the time of the fire, the factory site was owned by MMB Realty Co. and Gerald Binder. The property had been vacant for about a decade.

Joyner said the city is moving toward a foreclosure on the property because of unpaid taxes.

"Which will eventually bring the parcel under city control," Joyner said in an email message, in response to questions.

"From this assessment, plans to address and properly dispose of the materials will be created," he said.

After the fire, Mayor Linda M. Tyer was able to tap $1,700 in Board of Health money to run an initial assessment, after the City Council turned down her request for a deeper dive into the site's problems.

That Dec. 6, 2016, report, by ATC Group Services LLC, noted the presence of asbestos, hinted at other contaminants and recommended a more intensive assessment.

"ATC recommends minimal disturbance to surface soil at the site during clean-up of the fire debris due to potential soil contamination from the former operations ."

The discovery of asbestos alone increases any future cleanup costs. Demolition materials strewn across the site will have to be handled as asbestos waste, the ATC Group report said, by a licensed asbestos contractor.

The company also warned that further assessment could encounter hidden hazards, such as transformers and storage drums.

In an inventory it filed with its report, the company said it found one 55-gallon drum buried under debris in the plant's boiler room, as well as large metal buckets, a forklift and mounds of asphalt shingles.

The fire might have burned off hydraulic oil from the forklift, the company said, offering a glimmer of good news.

But it suggested that soil under the forklift should be inspected.

The property has been used for manufacturing since the 1800s.

Earlier environmental assessments on the property in the 1990s by Environmental Compliance Services of Agawam located PCBs in concentrations of 16 parts per million. The contaminated soil was removed.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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