USPS seeks 'more aggressive approach' to mitigate chemical plume affecting Great Barrington post office

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Concerned about risks to its employees and the public from chemical vapors inside the post office, the U.S. Postal Service is urging the state to take a "more aggressive approach" to contain a chemical plume still flowing in groundwater from the former dry cleaners next door.

The Postal Service also will take immediate measures to prevent and limit exposure to vapors emanating from contaminated groundwater, which has migrated from the Ried Cleaners property downhill south and east, toward the Housatonic River.

The renewed sense of alarm was prompted by the latest round of testing by AECOM Technical Services, detailed in an Aug. 2 letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection. AECOM said its 2018 indoor air-sampling data showed increasing vapor levels that approach the DEP's "Imminent Hazard" level and pose a "long-term risk" to employees, and possibly some risk to the public.

"Updated risk calculations of 2018 indicate indoor air concentrations are increasing and action to mitigate these impacts is needed now," an AECOM scientist and engineer told the agency.

DEP spokeswoman Catherine Skiba could not immediately provide information about the state's response.

For the past 11 years, AECOM has conducted sampling from monitoring wells and monitored indoor air at the post office on Main Street, at Postal Service expense, since Ried Realty Corp. ran out of money to clean up the property. The company is in foreclosure proceedings with the town in state Land Court for nonpayment of more than $42,000 in property taxes.

A lack of money might continue to slow and hinder a cleanup. AECOM's letter further said that the Postal Service learned that Ried is filing for bankruptcy. It also said that while it understands the financial limitations for a cleanup, "immediate action" is necessary to prevent the indoor air from exceeding the hazard level of vapors from the cleaners, which has sat vacant since 2006.

That was the year its owners retired after 54 years in business. The company used dry-cleaning solutions containing chemicals the federal Environmental Protection Agency says are likely carcinogens and pose other serious threats to health. Some of the chemicals were stored in underground tanks, as was heating oil. Leaks from those tanks, and what went down the cleaner's floor drains, have begun to migrate through groundwater, according to a 2015 report that raised vague concerns about the potential for a threat to drinking water, since two monitoring wells across the street had tested "slightly above" DEP drinking water standards for one of the chemicals.

Great Barrington's water is pumped at the Green River, with a secondary, emergency source uphill, near East Mountain off Quarry Street. Sheffield's water supply zone reaches into Great Barrington, but Great Barrington Fire District Water Department Superintendent Peter Marks told The Eagle that not only is Sheffield's well situated away from the Housatonic River, but it has a protective clay layer that is about 100 feet thick.

It is unclear whether the pollution has descended into bedrock, because the owners ran out of money to test more deeply. In 2010, Ried filed an application for "Financial Instability" with the DEP. Two years earlier, the DEP ordered Ried to take "immediate action" to prevent further release of the pollution, and classified the property as a high-priority cleanup site due to higher risks compared with other sites.

AECOM said that while the Postal Service is asking the DEP for help, it also plans to take its own short-term measures to protect its workers "and the general public who may frequent the Post Office."

These include limiting entry into the basement, replacing the basement door with one that is weather-tight, and sealing penetrations in the basement floor. AECOM said it will continue its groundwater sampling and indoor air monitoring.

Indoor air sampling over 11 years on the first/main floor of the post office shows that levels of the common dry-cleaning chemical tetrachloroethylene "are fluctuating but continue to exceed" the DEP's commercial/industrial indoor air threshold value.

Levels of trichloroethylene also are fluctuating, and also have exceeded DEP levels, but to a lesser extent.

AECOM said that while short-term risks to health were not found in the building, it is concentrations of the two chemicals on the main floor and basement/crawl space areas that pose the chronic risk.

Both chemicals are associated in studies with several types of cancers from chronic, long-term inhalation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Studies of people exposed in the workplace have found associations with several types of cancer including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma," the agency's website states.

Tom Jones, supervisor at the post office, said he could not comment. Christine Dugas, a Postal Service spokeswoman, said the Postal Service has been in communication with AECOM and the DEP. Representatives have not yet met with the agency but "welcome that dialogue."

AECOM said that post office employees have been notified about the results and risks six times since 2011, including twice in 2018.

And amid worry in 2016 that the pollution had spread to other properties in the plume's path, indoor air test results for the chemicals came back negative in April 2016 at 11 Rosseter St. and 9 Rosseter St., for instance.

At the same time, the DEP reported that testing at the adjacent Salisbury Bank property, and at the Mason Library across the street, indicated "no significant risk at this time."

A corner in the children's library, which is on the lower level, was the only area in the building that registered an insignificant level of tetrachloroethylene, one that the DEP said could possibly have come from other sources.

Who will pay?

AECOM said the Postal Service can't be expected to keep paying to monitor an active source of pollution, a cleanup of which has been pegged over the years at about $1.6 million.

That leaves the town stuck with the bill. In 2016, it appeared that taxpayers might inherit this environmental crisis in the heart of downtown after a developer's negotiations to purchase the property fell through.

But even before that, half a dozen other deals were killed by the unknown extent of the pollution at a property currently valued by the town at $297,600.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, as well as Town Planner Christopher Rembold, told The Eagle that they had not been informed of this development at the post office by the DEP or the Postal Service.

But Tabakin said that the town is working to find a way to develop the Ried property, but first must conduct further environmental testing.

"It is a priority site for the Town given its location in the center of our Main Street," she wrote in an email.

She said the town will use a portion of a $350,000 federal EPA Brownfield Assessment grant received last year to conduct further testing at Ried and other sites.

The testing, she added, can start before the case in Land Court is resolved, with permission from Ried Realty Corp., and would include indoor air sampling, indoor hazardous material assessment, additional groundwater sampling and bedrock groundwater testing.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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