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New Bedford Harbor

Harbor Cleanup

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Why is EPA cleaning up the harbor?

New Bedford Harbor, a busy commercial seaport, works to support its surrounding communities as it did through the whaling and industrial times. The harbor environment struggles from a more recent past of electrical device production which caused it to be one of EPA's largest Superfund cleanup sites.

The harbor is an 18,000-acre urban estuary with sediment highly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals. From the 1940s until EPA banned the production of PCBs in the 1970s, two manufacturing facilities improperly disposed of industrial wastes containing PCBs, contaminating the harbor bottom for about six miles from the Acushnet River into Buzzards Bay. The harbor was placed on EPA's National Priorities List (NPL) in 1982, and continues to require significant time and funding to clean up.

After extensive testing of water quality, harbor sediment, air quality and locally caught fish and shellfish, it was clear that the PCBs in the sediment posed a serious risk to human health and the environment. PCBs do not break down easily in the natural environment, and left untouched, continue to pose a risk within the local food chain.

EPA's greatest concern is the possibility of people eating contaminated locally caught seafood. The build-up of PCB levels within the marine life has resulted in restrictions on fishing, shellfishing and lobstering in and around the harbor. These will remain in place until PCB levels decrease in seafood; the decrease in PCB levels over time will depend on the species in question and the location at which the seafood is caught. Seafood data is continuously collected to ensure that the current restrictions protect human health. Learn more about PCBs.

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What progress is being made?

During the 1990’s, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers performed multiple targeted cleanup actions within the harbor and along the shoreline that removed some of the highest levels of PCB contamination, known as "Hot Spot" areas. Annual Upper Harbor dredging, conducted at a limited funding rate of $15 million per year, began in 2004.

In 2013, additional funding for the cleanup was secured under a $366.25 million settlement reached with a responsible party. The settlement made acceleration in pace of the cleanup possible, starting in 2014.

EPA addressed approximately 485,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated Upper Harbor sediment through dredging and off-site disposal as of September 2018. During 2016-2018, the cleanup project accomplished the dredging of about 319,000 cubic yards of PCB contaminated sediment from the Lower Harbor and lower portion of the Upper Harbor, followed by disposal in the Lower Harbor CAD Cell. Finally, through September 2018, EPA funded the removal of about 34,000 cubic yards of sediments from the shoreline, followed by disposal off-site.

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How much longer will this cleanup take?

EPA is working to return the New Bedford Harbor environment to a healthy state once again. Before the 2013 settlement was finalized, the cleanup timeline was estimated to take over four decades, a worst case scenario that no one found acceptable. With the finalization of the settlement, EPA estimates the majority of the cleanup construction to be complete in 5-7 years.

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