Back in the 1930s, General Electric used PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, to make electrical transformers in Pittsfield in a factory on the Housatonic River. About 40 years later Congress banned the chemical. Then, in 2000 GE signed an agreement with the state and federal governments requiring the company to pay for cleaning up the river.
Curt Spalding, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, eventually hopes people can eat fish again, which would require an extensive cleanup.
"We want to give the river back to the people of the Berkshires," Spalding said.
So far PCBs have been removed from the first two miles. Contaminated sediment on the river bottom was dredged. Riverbanks were dug up too, and then armored with big rocks to stop erosion. Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, says that approach is not appropriate in this next section, which flows through an area better known for Tanglewood than toxins.
"It has a remarkable profusion of rare species, plants and animals, vernal pools, unique soils, unique habitats," Kimmell said. "And so, one simply has to be very carefully about doing more harm than good and destroying a river in order to save it."
In the past three years General Electric has submitted to the EPA a detailed analysis of different cleanup proposals. The company prefers the least invasive — “monitored natural recovery” — which would not dig anything up. The only option that’s cheaper is doing nothing. GE declined an interview request for this story. [Update: Click for GE's statement]
The EPA hasn’t made public yet what kind of cleanup it prefers. First, EPA's regional office wants its national experts, known as the Remedy Review Board, to weigh in on its proposal.
"We need to get to EPA’s best thinking about how to clean up this river, that’s the next milestone," Spalding said. "To stop now would just throw that off track."
But the state of Massachusetts wants to delay the review. So does General Electric. In the last two weeks, the head of the EPA in Washington received at least four requests for a delay.
"Members of Congress sent to Lisa Jackson letters asking that the process be essentially arrested now and negotiation with state started now — a detailed negotiation about the proposal," Spalding said.
The secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts wrote Jackson (PDF) asking to "engage in an intensive discussion with the Commonwealth and representatives of GE” before EPA's proposal is submitted for internal review. GE also wrote Jackson (PDF) for a delay and referenced the state’s letter. Sen. Scott Brown (PDF) and Rep. John Olver (PDF) both requested a delay.
Spalding says he wants feedback from his own agency before going public.
"We've probably done more remedy work than any agency in the world, so I’d like have the best thinking of the people within EPA before I get into a conversation with GE or the state of Massachusetts or the public," he said.
In January the state submitted to the EPA lengthy comments on GE’s cleanup study and a detailed proposal of its own. But Kimmell with the DEP says Massachusetts wants a seat at the table now.
"We want to sit down and negotiate and discuss," Kimmell said. "We would like to be partners with EPA to figure out how to clean this up, as opposed to just another bystander who comments on whatever EPA comes up with."
Spalding says the EPA proposal can be changed after his agency reviews it.
The EPA has not yet responded to the requests for a delay, and intends to begin its review July 27.
-- Update: Here's GE's statement:
GE is committed to implementing the right remedy for the Housatonic Rest of River. We believe that the best course is to let nature take its course through Monitored Natural Recovery.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has concluded that “the various sediment and flood plain alternative combinations presented [in the Revised Corrective Measures Study] . . . would cause irreparable harm to this fragile ecosystem by disrupting habitats and ecosystem processes that have shaped the river and its flood plains for thousands of years. This is not acceptable.”
We’re not surprised that the Commonwealth’s and GE’s experts agree since the scientists whose analyses are contained in the Revised Corrective Measures Study include nationally renowned experts who EPA and other federal agencies have relied upon for their expertise. These conclusions should not be disregarded.
EPA should work with the Commonwealth, GE and other stakeholders to develop a common sense solution for the Rest of River.
This program aired on July 8, 2011.