For most of the twentieth century, Pittsfield Massachusetts was one, big company town. General Electric dominated the local economy, at one time employing over 13,000 workers at its 250-acre facility on the East branch of the Housatonic. Three GE divisions operated from Pittsfield, and the plant was a major producer of electrical transformers. From 1932 until 1977, it also produced tremendous amounts of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) that, according to the EPA ,"reached the waste and storm water systems associated with the facility and were subsequently conveyed to the East Branch of the Housatonic River and to Silver Lake."
In fact, there were several ways that PCBs from General Electric spread to the surrounding environment. They were dumped directly into the river for years, and the full amount has yet to be tallied. Massive plumes of contamination several feet thick beneath the GE facility transferred PCBs to the river and to the surrounding neighborhood. Tons of contaminated soil were used as fill - given away for residential and commercial construction sites and used to fill in oxbows in the Housatonic for development. Seasonal floods left contaminated sediment in the floodplain far downstream. PCBs have been detected in air samples taken from many basements in Pittsfield.
These vectors are documented by the EPA. Then there is the gray paint. I took a "toxic tour" of Pittsfield recently with Riverkeeper Tim Gray, and we visited a home in the Newell Street neighborhood where the back stairs had been painted medium gray with GE paint. The paint held up very well in that high traffic area, and according to the owner, was made with PCB oil as an additive. Surplus paint found its way home with employees, and nobody knows how many homes may have been contaminated in this way.
Just beyond the backyard of this residence is a chain link fence with a sign warning of PCB contamination on the other side. There is a high tension line and a power company right of way beyond the fence, and a pit lightly covered with blowing sheets of plastic in which hundreds of drums filled with PCB contaminated soil and transformers have recently been uncovered. The homeowner has a video camera pointed out his attic window at the site, which provided evidence that drew the EPA's attention to this previously undocumented dumping ground. Former GE workers suggest that there are other undocumented sites like this throughout Pittsfield saying; "Just follow the wires."
Even more than the much abused Housatonic, Silver Lake is Pittsfield's Cuyahoga. This body of water next to the GE facility was historically so saturated with chemicals that in past decades it sometimes caught fire. Under the consent decree that governs the PCB clean up, Silver lake will have a small area dredged but the remainder of this 26-acre impoundment will be capped, with the contamination left in place beneath the new fill. PCB levels in Silver Lake fish reach more than 200 parts per million (ppm). In contrast, the US FDA determines a maximum PCB level of 2ppm as the threshold for human consumption.
GE's best-known slogan proudly claims "We bring good things to life." Bringing things to life with electricity is what got Dr. Frankenstein in trouble. This corporation has a very poor track record when it comes to pollution and owning up to its responsibility for clean up. GE's misdeeds in Pittsfield, the Hudson River Valley, and in many communities nationwide represent a litany of corporate shame, yet bringing GE to full account often seems a Sisyphean undertaking.
The consent decree among GE, state and federal regulatory agencies, and some stakeholders for addressing the PCBs from Pittsfield was a compromise negotiated in 1999. A two-mile stretch of the East branch has been dredged and its banks reclaimed with rock and native vegetation. The contaminated sediments do not travel far from the river, however. Those with ppm of 50 or less are trucked a short distance away to Hill 78, a disposal site adjacent to Allendale elementary school that has grown alarmingly in size since the clean up began. The "hill" was originally a ravine that drained through the GE facility and on to the Housatonic. Debris was dumped there for decades before it became an official disposal site, and is one of the reasons it was selected to receive "moderately contaminated material" from the cleanup. The nastier stuff is supposed to go to nearby Building 71.
A major problem with capping these contaminated materials with a few feet of sand at Hill 78 is hydrological. The drainage of the buried ravine still orients toward the Housatonic. However, there is reason to be concerned that surface water seeping through the top fill and heavily compressed, contaminated material may collect and disperse in other directions. This phenomenon can happen in nature when beaver impoundments redirect both surface and groundwater flow, and is an engineering challenge at gravel pit reclamation sites where the material used to recontour the pit can be compacted by heavy machinery and affect groundwater hydrology. Subsurface water can back up under such conditions and finds other ways to flow around the obstacles in its path. Backing up from Hill 78 will recontaminate the playground at Allendale school, which has already had its PCB laden fill removed. The chain link fence is just a shallow, foul ball off the first-base line of the elementary school's ball field.
Five years into the cleanup, concerns about recontamination, undocumented disposal areas, and the restoration needs of the rest of the river in Massachusetts and Connecticut remain unresolved. There are powerful local and national interests that resist a full accounting and full accountability for GE's pollution of Pittsfield and the Housatonic River. Were it not for the courage and power of citizen activism, and the professionalism and persistence of certain agency regulators, the City and the River would likely remain the "Love Canal" of the Berkshires. Fortunately, the lights that shine on the PCB problem are not only GE's. We'll discuss the role of informed citizen action in a subsequent posting.