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Region 1: EPA New England

Step By Step, Clean Up Efforts Make Pittsfield Healthier

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

By Robert W. Varney
March 3, 2006

Over the past several months there has been a concern raised by some in the western Mass. community of Pittsfield questioning the proximity of the landfills called Hill 78 and Building 71 to the Allendale School. As we approach a new season of work to continue the cleanup of PCB contamination in Pittsfield, it is worth taking a few moments to review all of the work that has been done in the community over the past half decade, and what we are doing to ensure the continued health and safety of Pittsfield citizens.

EPA remains firmly committed to taking actions in Pittsfield that help protect public health and restore the ecological integrity of the land and water in the community. Our work in Pittsfield is steadily resulting in a cleaner, safer and healthier environment for families to live in and grow.

Our goal has remained constant: to work step-by-step with the community through the long-term process of addressing dozens of complicated sites to mitigate the threat posed by PCB contamination. Our job is to ensure that the people of Pittsfield are not being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of toxic contamination.

I don't have to remind you that it's been a very long process. The year 1999 was a milestone, when negotiations between EPA, the state, General Electric and the City resulted in a landmark settlement -- valued at over $250 million -- to clean up Pittsfield and the Housatonic River. The settlement was memorialized in a Consent Decree that was entered in federal court the following year, making it a binding legal agreement.

The 1999 settlement has been the crucial factor in allowing so much work to occur so quickly in Pittsfield. Bringing the key parties to the table -- and avoiding many more years of unproductive legal posturing -- means that Pittsfield will be cleaner, safer and healthier for generations to come. It can be said that the negotiated settlement didn't give each party everything they hoped for. What the settlement did provide was what was needed -- a firm, legally-binding commitment to put the health and environmental integrity of Pittsfield first. This allowed work to proceed as quickly as possible to clean up contamination that had accumulated over many decades.

In the six and one-half years since the settlement was reached, EPA, state agencies, the City and GE have undertaken one of the largest and most complex cleanups in the country, while meeting the underlying objectives of the settlement: remediation, revitalization, and restoration.

Examples of our success are in plain view, most notably along the ancient Housatonic River as it winds through Pittsfield. Clean up work is complete on the first previously PCB-laden ½ mile of the Housatonic River, adjacent to the GE facility. Exceptional progress has been made on the 1 ½ Mile Reach between Lyman Street and Fred Garner Park. We've overcome significant engineering hurdles, allowing this $90 million portion of the EPA clean up to be ahead of schedule and likely completed later this year. Visitors and residents of Pittsfield alike are marveling at how beautiful the restored river is, with new native plants taking hold on the cleaned river edge.

That's not all. GE has also removed contaminated soil and restored 27 residential properties abutting the river. To date, more than 115,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment, bank, and floodplain soil have been removed from the river and from people's yards, making a safer environment for children to play.

Cleaning these "in town" portions of the river is not the end of our work. We're now looking ahead to what still needs to be done. EPA and GE continue to hammer out a cleanup decision for the Rest of River section. We recently sent back GE's initial proposal for preliminary cleanup goals for the Rest of River, because EPA, in accord with comments from the public and from peer reviewers, wants strong and protective clean up goals to be in place as the clean up work moves down river. EPA is conducting the Rest of River process in an open and transparent manner, and we will ensure the project stays on schedule and results in a clean up that is fully protective of public health and the environment.

Nor is the river itself the only area requiring clean up work. The Consent Decree calls for 18 significant areas of investigation and remediation -- as well as five areas where groundwater is being monitored and PCB-contaminated oil is being removed. A scientifically appropriate response action is being determined for each of these cleanup areas.

To date, work is completed at five areas outside of the river, remediation is underway at another four, remediation is scheduled to begin later this year at an additional three and pre-design investigations and the development of cleanup plans are proceeding at the remaining areas. The baseline groundwater monitoring is complete at all five areas of the site, and more than one million gallons of PCB-contaminated oil have been removed from groundwater beneath the site.

Excavation is underway at property owned by Western Mass. Electric Co. at the intersection of Newell and Sackett Streets, to remove PCB-contaminated soil from a filled river oxbow near several homes. After discovering drums and capacitors last fall, EPA, GE and state officials worked cooperatively to further investigate this property. Following a careful review, GE's proposal to remove all drums from the property has been approved and will move forward. The work will extend the excavation depth to twice the original depth in many areas, and the next phase will be performed in the upcoming few weeks under EPA oversight.

GE and the Mass. Dept of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) have investigated hundreds of suspected fill properties in the area. So far, 175 residential properties have been cleaned up and restored. For GE and MassDEP to have fulfilled their promise to clean up every property where elevated levels of contamination have been confirmed is worthy of our gratitude.

As concerned as we are with removing health threats from PCB contamination in Pittsfield, we are also focused on helping the community to rebound economically. At the dormant GE facility, the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, established in a $45 million companion agreement to the Consent Decree, is working to make economic revitalization in Pittsfield a reality. Last year, Sinicon Plastics announced plans to open a 20,000 square foot manufacturing plant, increasing its workforce by 25 percent.

While we are proud of our extraordinary progress since 1999 to eliminate health threats for residents of Pittsfield, EPA also understands the community's concern regarding Allendale School and the adjacent landfills. To address these concerns, EPA along with both MassDEP and the Mass. Dept. of Public Health, has responded with an aggressive program of environmental monitoring at the school to identify if there are dangerous levels of PCBs in the schoolyard soils or air.

The test results are very reassuring -- there do not appear to be significant levels of PCBs in the schoolyard, either in the soil or in the air. The overwhelming majority of our soil samples show no detections of PCBs whatsoever. Air monitoring has detected either no PCBs, or levels that are so minute that they do not pose significant risks to people. Protections put in place in the 1999 Consent Decree governing what can be put in the landfills, and what measures have to be followed to minimize the chance of airborne recontamination, are working.

EPA's primary concern with the school is to ensure that children, teachers and employees of Allendale School are not being exposed to potentially-harmful levels of PCBs. Our environmental monitoring reassures us that this goal is being met.

As an added precaution, EPA has worked with GE to enhance practices at the landfills to ensure that neither PCBs nor uncontaminated dust become a future concern during the continued consolidation and capping activities.

It is understandable that people in the community question having an elementary school and landfill near one another. EPA never would have allowed this situation to continue if we believed that the health of Pittsfield's children or educators would be put at risk. Further, if the information we collect indicates that protections at the landfills are not adequate, EPA would move aggressively to take any action necessary -- including shutting down the landfills -- to protect citizens' health.

In the meantime, GE is required to perform stringent inspection, monitoring and maintenance at the landfills to ensure that all protections are in place and working. EPA will continue our careful oversight of GE's work at the landfills, including the air monitoring at the perimeter of the landfills. Finally, EPA will continue to collect air samples in the schoolyard. These data are available to the community as we receive it, including on our web site.

Let me restate: If at any time the data suggests that the activities at the landfills are posing unacceptable risks to the public, we will shut the landfills down. However, as with all issues before EPA, we'll continue to make our decisions based on accurate data and sound science, and we will use a transparent public process when making decisions.

It is worth remembering that back in the late 1990's, the community consensus was that the regulatory agencies and GE were spending too much time debating the situation and that the time had come for cleanups to begin. EPA has honored the commitments we made to Pittsfield in 1999. We will continue our work on the many cleanups, with the goal of helping Pittsfield's families to look forward to a future with a cleaner, healthier environment. We look forward to sharing that success with you.

Robert W. Varney is regional administrator of EPA's New England Office in Boston.

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