The Housatonic Cleanup

PITTSFIELD—The Housatonic River flows through nearly all of Berkshire County; its branches reaching 23 of the country’s 32 cities and towns. But residents can’t swim in the river, drink its water or eat its fish after 45 years of pollution from a Pittsfield General Electric factory.

The federally mandated clean up of the river has also run a crooked course. It took seven years to clean two miles of the river in a process criticized for the rock-cluttered riverbank left in the cleanup's wake.

Two months ago State Energy Secretary Ian Bowles designated 12,000 acres along 13 miles of the Upper Housatonic as an "area of critical environmental concern," the 30th such designation (known as an ACEC) in Massachusetts. The action could give the state a greater role in the remaining clean up and bring a jurisdictional joust with the federal government.

“The reason we pursued the ACEC is that it brings the (state) back into the negotiations with the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and GE over the cleanup of the river,” said Eleanor Tillinghast, president of Green Berkshire Inc., which campaigned for the ACEC nomination.

Some river advocates hope the ACEC will give the state more oversight on the cleanup, a privilege now held only by the federal government. But others see little chance to divert the EPA's “federal freight train," as one activist called it.

Tim Gray, director of Housatonic River Initiative, the river’s oldest advocacy group, believes the state may be swimming against the juridical tide. The 1980 federal Superfund law, which forces responsible parties to clean up contaminated sites, will probably trump ACEC regulations, he said.

“The (EPA) Superfund law is the most powerful law out there as far as the cleanup goes,” Gray said. “That law will drive a cleanup and will probably drive a cleanup in the way the EPA wants to do it.”

The ABCs of PCBs

From 1932 to 1977, GE released tons (estimates range from 20 to 750) of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the Housatonic River. The chemical compound, used as a coolant in many electrical appliances, has no color, taste, or smell, but can be deadly.  

The contaminant has been linked to cancer and developmental disabilities in humans.

The EPA ranks the Housatonic River as one of the most PCB-contaminated areas in the country. A duck found near the river tested for 3,700-parts-per-million; any object with 50-parts-per-million or more is considered hazardous waste.

In an EPA study, mink puppies were fed Housatonic fish for six weeks. The fish’s PCB-contamination was four-parts-per-million; many fish in the Housatonic contain 50-parts-per-million. Half of the puppies died.

State vs. Feds

Secretary Bowles acknowledged his unprecedented move to protect a federal Superfund site was taken to bring more focus on the problem.

“The ACEC will bring heightened attention to the cleanup,” he said in the designation letter.

But with the state locked in to a 2000 agreement with the EPA and GE, it remains to be seen if that attention will make a difference.

Supporters hope Bowles' decision will limit destructive dredging done under the federally supervised cleanup and ban PCB-contaminated landfills.

But state regulations will only factor in if they qualify as “applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements" (ARARs), the sole tool in federal statues to curb EPA authority.

Backers are confident the ACEC protection is eligible for consideration, meeting federal standards that include that state regulations are both applicable and more stringent than federal ones.

“We believe it is an ARAR,” Tillinghast said of the state designation. “The EPA won’t acknowledge that is an ARAR, but clearly they are treating it as one.”

In February the EPA sent a letter to Bowles requesting an exemption from any possible ACEC regulations. “It would not be in either of our Agencies’ interest for the ACEC to be used to delay or even preclude remediation…” it read.

When the secretary issued the protection in March, he included no exemptions.

But the EPA contended in its letter that even without an exemption, the river’s protected status wouldn’t affect an EPA-directed cleanup: “EPA reserves its right to assert that the Decree requirements must be followed and/or that ACEC requirements do not constitute (ARARs).”

Gray, who lost a 1998 challenge to the EPA over a PCB dump 50 feet away from Pittsfield's Allendale Elementary School playground, said although the Feds may have to jump high, they should be able to clear the ACEC hurdle.

“Are we going to try to change ways they’re going to clean it up? Yes. We’re going to fight,” he said. “But in the end the EPA has a powerful case to move ahead with the way they want to clean it up.”

Beauty vs. Purity

If ACEC regulations are determined to hold power over federal authority, many facets of the cleanup would require special state permission.

Advocates, such as Tillinghast and George Wislocki, founder of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, say state monitoring is crucial. They argue similar control would’ve prevented what happened in GE and the EPA’s initial cleanup of the most contaminated two miles of the river.

The cleanup removed 110,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil and sediment, cut down trees along the water, and left the riverbanks jacketed with rocks.

“As it stands today, it remains what it was before—and industrial ditch,” Wislocki said. “I am concerned that after the (next) cleanup it will not be returned to a natural area.”

But Gray, who signed on to the ACEC nomination, warns it should not be used to minimize the cleanup. He said although restoration could have been better, many of the PCBs were removed, deeming the initial cleanup a success.

Regardless of its barren appearance now, vegetation will reclaim the area in 10 years, said Gray, who owns Golden Hill Nursery in Lee.

And the EPA defends its job.

“The trees are coming back, the fish are coming back. We think it’s a success story,” said EPA spokesman Jim Murphy. “Restoration is not something that happens overnight. You really have to give it time.”

But some are unwilling to wait.

Jay Baver, a sportsman who grew up on the Housatonic, said retaining the beauty and fishing of the river trumps removing PCBs.

“Do I want to see it clean? Yeah. But for me as a sportsman—and this is a very selfish statement—but if they go in and strip it, I may never catch any fish or trout again,” he said. Baver eats the ducks he kills by the contaminated river.

Applying the river’s armor

With the state protection less than two months old, no one knows exactly how it could alter the remaining cleanup. Delving into existing ACEC regulations unearths more questions than answers.

Any cleanup would likely involve the removal of river sediment. But ACEC standards prohibit dredging, except for "fisheries or wildlife enhancement.” The EPA has asked if PCB removal falls under the exception.
But one regulation may decide where the dredged PCBs can or can't go.

Solid waste management facilities are categorically banned from ACECs. Every GE cleanup proposal includes a PCB landfill within the protected boundaries.

Gray, who for years has advocated for alternative technologies to clean PCBs out of the soil, said preventing a landfill would be a major success.

“Will it be able to prevent a dump? Maybe. What we’re hoping is that if the EPA decides on a dump, at the least it’ll force it to get our of the river corridor,” he said. “But our bottom line solution is that if the EPA comes in and says there will be a landfill… we’re going to fight tooth and nail that that landfill be designated temporary.”

The EPA has considered shipping PCB sediment to dumps in upstate New York or Texas, but has shied away from more expensive, new technologies to remove the PCBs from the soil.

In Canada, PCB cleanups rely on other methods, such as incineration and bioremediation, which involves organisms eating the PCBs. There are no landfills.

Eric A. H. Smith, president of PCB Removal Inc. in Toronto, said although removal is costly, "you don't look at the economical part, you look at it as being a final solution."

But GE doesn't believe some new technologies are viable.

"If those would do the type of remediation that we think is necessary, we'd be the first one to use them," said GE spokesman Peter O'Toole. "But we found that (the alternatives) would not give you the levels of remediation in this type of setting that are necessary."

The river’s path

EPA now awaits an overhauled cleanup proposal from GE, after sending back the company's last plan with several "overriding concerns," including a request for PCB landfill alternatives. Murphy expects a response near the end of the year.

O'Toole said GE is now crafting an "ecologically sensitive" plan.

"It's kind of a more surgical approach," he said.

After public commentary on a new proposal, the EPA will create a final cleanup plan sometime in 2010. Berkshire advocacy groups and GE-filed appeals are then likely.

“We expect that (GE’s) lawyers are already sharpening their pencils and probably have some intention of taking it to court,” Gray said. “Because unlike their Ecomagination commercials on television, they really haven’t had a desire to clean up the PCBs in the Housatonic, or the Hudson, or any other of their (78) Superfund cleanup sites across the United States.”

In January, GE lost a 9-year-old lawsuit that claimed the Superfund law was unconstitutional. But O'Toole assures that "GE wants a clean Housatonic River."

And seemingly everyone else shares that desire.

“It’s horrible what GE did to that river—it’s the core, the heart of the Berkshires,” Wislocki said. “It has to be cleaned up and it has to be brought back as an ecosystem… and I have all the confidence that the ACEC will do what it’s meant to do, which it bring that to pass.”

Jack Nicas is a correspondent for the Lowell Sun, Berkshire Eagle, and Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.