General Electric and the U-S Environmental Protection Agency are negotiating a plan to clean up PCBs from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield Massachusetts. River advocates in Massachusetts and Connecticut are calling for an aggressive clean up, but they don’t want the river damaged in the process
Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative, has been one of the harshest critics of both General Electric and the government during the decades-long fight for a clean up in the Housatonic River. Yet Gray says he’s very pleased with the work that’s been done in the first two miles, but he also points out there’s still a lot to do.
“We’re moving into a section called “rest of river” that has a very special place in out hearts because it is one of the most magnificent sections of the Housatonic River. Yet its chock full of PCBs. Has some of the highest levels in the country.”
PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls are a neurotoxin and considered a probable human carcinogen. They were used legally by G.E. to make electrical transformers in Pittsfield until Congress banned them in 1976. The U-S Environmental Protection Agency and G.E. spent much of the past decade removing PCBs from the first two miles of the Housatonic .
Recently about 45 people; Housatonic Valley residents, environmentalists and E.P.A. staffers took a kind of toxic waste clean up tour in Pittsfield. As they clambered onto the banks of the river Dean Tagliaferro of the E.P.A. points out how vegetation has grown back since the PCBs were dug up.
“You can see the variety of trees and shrubs that have been planted; black willow right there behind you. Some of the cotton woods are 30 to 40 feet tall here and they were planted in 2003.”
About 700 native trees were planted per acre of riverbank. That was after more than one hundred thousand cubic yards of sediment containing PCBs were dug up. The clean up could be described as deconstructing the river and then reconstructing it. The river banks were rebuilt and stabilized with lots of big rocks, known as rip rap. Some people say they make the river look like a ditch. Tagliaferro explains the rocks hold the soil and any PCBs that remain in place when it rains or floods.
“Behind the riprap and behind a couple of feet of clean fill there probably is some residual PCBs in the banks. So that’s what we wanted to lock in and contain.”
But containing the river raises issues for some environmentalists who also want the PCBs gone.
René Laubach of Mass Audubon says a river confined by rocks is restricted within its banks.
“The river’s been meandering and changing course for thousands of years, depositing material here, cutting material there and really changing the whole character of the flood plain. With the rock in place it won’t be able to do that. It will be confined to the narrow channel that it’s in now.”
The river in Pittsfield was already forced into this channel back in the 1940s to prevent flooding. But the river south of the city is more wild. Laubach says rocks on the banks get in the way of mammals and birds.
“Species like kingfisher for instance, a couple of swallows, bank swallow, rough wing swallow that burrow into the bank into the nest. Muskrats and other creatures that normally utilize the banks aren’t able to at this point. So it’s not really a natural river system anymore.“
Restoration ecologist Keith Bowers has been hired by the EPA to advise the agency on General Electric’s clean up proposal for the rest of the river. Bowers says it’s possible to clean the Housatonic up using less rock.
“There might be other techniques, such as larger boulders or geo textile fabric that’s layered into the banks and vegetation planted on the outside that can be used in combination with rock like this to not only give it a better aesthetic appeal, but also even additional habitat that the rock is currently not providing now.”
Bowers says there are also clean up methods that would let the river flow freely within a larger corridor
“If we lock in a corridor and allow the river to meander within that corridor then we’d be safe from a PCB standpoint.”
General Electric spokesperson Peter O’Toole says the company is looking at a wide array of options for it calls an ecologically –sensitive clean up.
“I don’t think on something that is this important and that has so many important stake holders involved that you’re going to have a solution that will satisfy everybody 100 percent. What we want to do is commit to a full clean up of the Housatonic River that preserves the vibrant wildlife populations and ecological values, as best we can.”
What “best we can” means is still to be determined. The E.P.A. and G.E. are discussing the company’s ideas.
There are no plans to dig up PCBs in the Housatonic in Connecticut.
But biologist Traci Iott with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection says as PCBs have been dug up in Massachusetts the levels measured in insects and fish in Connecticut are dropping.
“We’re generally seeing PCB concentrations in biota in Connecticut decreasing with PCB removals in Massachusetts.”
But the levels are still high enough that people are advised not to eat the fish. Iott says Connecticut is calling on G.E. to provide more monitoring of PCB levels in fish and insects here than the company is currently proposing.
Back in Pittsfield, Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative, says, he and others are ready for the challenges of the rest of the clean up.
“It’s going to be invasive. There’s going to be a lot of digging probably dredging. It breaks our hearts to some degree, but one thing we do know is the river will come back. The man-made restoration will aid in speeding that up, but the restorative powers and healing powers of the river itself is phenomenal.”
Besides removing the PCBs, and restoring the river there’s one thorny question no one has tackled yet: Where to put the PCBs after they’re dug up.