Vapors at Great Barrington post office not 'imminent hazard,' DEP says

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Chemical vapors escaping into the post office pose no imminent threat, according to state environmental officials, but the U.S. Postal Service says it's taking no chances.

Responding to concerns raised by the Postal Service, a spokewoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection this week sought to give reassurance about the level of risk from the vapors, which are emanating from a chemical plume beneath the former Ried Cleaners building next door.

"Based on the results of the indoor air quality testing, a condition of Imminent Hazard does not exist and no immediate action is required," said DEP spokeswoman Catherine Skiba, in an email to The Eagle, referring to the agency's standard.

Skiba said the agency is still reviewing an Aug. 3 letter from AECOM Technical Services, an environmental consultant for the U.S. Postal Service, which suggests the vapors present long-term health risks for post office employees and the public.

Still, spokeswoman Christine Dugan said the Postal Service will keep to its plan to reduce exposure by installing a new, weather-tight basement door and sealing the basement floor with epoxy, as well as continued testing and other steps.

Ried Cleaners, which closed in 2006 and is in bankruptcy, ran out of money to continue environmental testing at the site and finish plans to clean up the property from which dry cleaning solvents are still actively leaching into groundwater that is flowing southeast.

The tainted water has found its way into the adjacent post office property and is releasing vapor up into the basement and main floor, at levels that have increased since it began testing the air 11 years ago, AECOM told the agency.

AECOM said that, while toxic vapor levels have not reached "imminent hazard" status, the indoor air concentration "is at the maximum end" of this target level.

"Immediate action is needed to limit the potential for [contaminants] in indoor air to exceed [Imminent Hazard] levels," wrote an AECOM scientist and engineer, in the Postal Service's filing with the DEP early last month.

In the meantime, the town continues foreclosure proceedings in state Land Court with Ried Realty Corp., the owner of the property, for more than $42,000 in back taxes.

Costly testing, cleanup

AECOM also asked the agency to take a "more aggressive approach" to addressing the Ried site.

A 2015 study, funded by Ried through a state grant, determined that the plume was releasing into groundwater and spreading. The full extent of the pollution, and whether it has reached bedrock, is unknown.

Lack of money for what has, in the past, been estimated as a $1.6 million cleanup has kept the chemicals migrating. The only way to fix this is to clean up the source at the Ried site, AECOM told the DEP.

But cleaning up former dry cleaning sites is pricey, says a developer who just did this on Bridge Street. The contaminated soil from the former Laramee Cleaners had to be trucked to a toxic waste dump in Quebec.

"What drives the expense for these cleanups [is that] you have to truck it," said Michael Charles of Benchmark Development, which is building the new Berkshire Co-op Market and condominiums at the former dry cleaning site. "There's really no place regionally that will accept that material."

Charles said while Benchmark got "lucky" that a chemical plume hadn't migrated offsite, the cleanup cost the developers "a big six-figure number."

But because the chemicals didn't spread, neither did the liability, which often keeps developers from going near dry cleaning sites without agreements with agencies such as the DEP for liability caps.

More than a half-dozen attempts by developers to purchase the Ried Cleaners property have fallen through over the years because of the unknown extent of the pollution — and thus, the liability.

The town will now use part of a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do further and deeper testing, according to Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin.

And once it owns the property, the town likely will apply for brownfield cleanup grants, said Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon.

Board member Ed Abrahams said he wonders if other buildings in the path of the pollution should also be retested. The last round of air test results from several buildings on Rosseter Street, the Salisbury Bank property and the Mason Library eliminated concern that the vapors were a threat — but that was in 2016.

"As an elected official, my concern is I don't know the answer to this question," he said.

The city of Pittsfield faced similar questions in the years after 2006, when the Stetson Dry Cleaners on Federal Street closed, and its owner stopped paying taxes the following year. Dry cleaning chemicals had migrated from Stetson via groundwater to the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center on East Street, for instance. The center had to then install a system to vent the vapors, according to City Planner Nate Joyner.

Joyner said a first round of assessment, a demolition and repaving began in 2015 with a $350,000 grant. After the city completes the tax title-taking in Land Court, he said, it will apply for more grants to do an "actual remediation" and possibly other work at offsite areas where the chemicals traveled.

The city plans to turn the site into a parking lot, he added, something Bannon said he personally would like to see happen at Ried.

"There's always a need for more parking," he said.Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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