GE, state await word on Housatonic pollution
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
By Hugh Bailey
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, June 28, 2015
The Stevenson Dam, between Monroe and Oxford, across the Housatonic River.
Photo: Morgan Kaolian AEROPIX
The state of Connecticut and General Electric remain in a standoff, with the Fairfield-based conglomerate threatening to move amid planned tax increases. But the two are also at odds in another arena, over pollution that dates back nearly a century in one of the state’s major rivers.
GE and the state are awaiting a decision from the federal Environmental Protection Agency over pollutants in the Housatonic River that the company stopped using almost 40 years ago. But polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that the company dumped from its Pittsfield, Mass., production plant until 1977 linger in the river’s sediment. They can flow downstream, and Connecticut wants to make sure the company is responsible for future costs associated with them.
The issue has been argued over for decades. The vast majority of the pollution is within a few miles of Pittsfield, and the biggest remaining questions concern how much more should be cleaned in that area, and whether those actions would bring more harm than good.
But Connecticut is affected, as well. Advisories have long warned against eating many fish caught in the Housatonic, and PCBs, though they may be buried in sediment, can cause problems when work is done on the river and sediment is disturbed.
The Stevenson Dam, for instance, which runs between Oxford and Monroe and holds back Lake Zoar, is 96 years old. The road across it has long been deemed in need of replacement, and the dam itself has undergone repairs in recent years. Anything extensive, including the building of a new bridge, would mean churning up PCBs that have built up for years behind the dam.
A draft of the EPA’s latest Housatonic decision was released last year. “It said GE would be responsible for incremental costs,” said Jim Murphy, of EPA’s Region 1, which covers New England. “If a dam has additional costs from PCBs that came from GE, GE would pick that up. GE disagreed with that. Connecticut strongly supported it.”
The Housatonic Valley Association's "Source to Sound" river trip moves along the Housatonic River in Shelton in 2011. Photo: File Photo
According to the EPA, PCBs, a group of manmade organic chemicals that were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications, were manufactured in this country from 1929 until they were banned in 1979.
They can cause cancer, and also affect the immune, reproductive and nervous systems. Exposure comes from either direct contact or from consumption of contaminated fish.
GE’s use and disposal of them over many decades in Pittsfield was not illegal, but the company has been accused of taking too long to clean them up.
“They’re a business,” said Dennis Regan, Berkshire director for the Housatonic Valley Association. “They don’t want to do a thing they don’t think they should have to do.”
He said GE’s preference has been mainly to monitor the river and wait for PCBs to break down on their own. “PCBs will break down naturally, but you’re looking at 2,000 years, 3,000 years,” Regan said. “We would rather see it done sooner than that.”
Even with less contamination in the Connecticut portion of the river, the issue remains serious, Regan said. “The problem is that fish are still swimming back and forth,” he said. “They eat the vegetation that is sunk down in sediment with the PCBs, and it builds up in their system and goes up the food chain. It doesn’t go away.”
In 2000, GE, the EPA and the two states signed an agreement that addressed cleaning the areas around the plant, with further cleanup to come in later years. The section known as Rest of River, which covers from about 2 miles south of Pittsfield to where the Housatonic empties into Long Island Sound, between Milford and Stratford, Conn., is currently under discussion.
The plan does not call for removal of PCBs from any part of Connecticut.
The railroad bridge spanning the Housatonic River just south of New Milford's village center.
Photo: File Photo
“It’s been pretty clear for the last several years that we weren’t going to propose any active remediation in Connecticut,” said Murphy, of the EPA. “We were interested in institutional controls if there was a need for any future action. The question is, are they still on the hook for it?”
GE, in its public comments to last year’s EPA report, said the federal government’s proposal goes too far.
“If a third party incurs costs associated with PCBs in undertaking a project in the river, that party might seek recovery from GE (or others), and there are ample mechanisms available for resolving such claims. However, that is a matter for the parties to resolve or, if necessary, for the courts to decide,” the company said.
The state of Connecticut takes a different view. “Connecticut supports the inclusion of provisions … to hold GE accountable for the incremental cost which PCBs have on permitted activities within the river. This is an important measure to allow the citizens and corporations within Connecticut to use the Housatonic River and its resources in appropriate ways without assuming additional costs because of the presence of PCBs,” the state said in public comments.
After a revised decision is released this summer, it would be subject to a dispute-resolution process. The final ruling could then be challenged before an EPA appeals board, and beyond that to federal appeals court.
GE released a statement last week that says, “GE remains committed to a solution for the Housatonic Rest of River. We have submitted our comments on the EPA’s proposal and we hope they take them under consideration.”
FirstLight Power Resources, a subsidiary of GDF SUEZ Energy North America, operates the Stevenson Dam as well as the Shepaug Dam, on Lake Lillinonah, among others.
Len Greene, a FirstLight representative, said the company doesn’t have any specific plan to disturb PCB-laden materials even as it wants to ensure GE is held accountable.
“Our position has always been that GE is responsible for any mitigation,” Greene said. “If we actually do any work that would require us to disturb that material, it would be handled at GE’s cost.”
He said the presence of PCBs does not affect the company’s regular operations, and current work at the Stevenson Dam, which is temporarily closed for repairs, is on the front of the dam, where there is no buildup of contaminants.
Thanks to the state’s industrial legacy, regulators warn that people with certain risk factors should not eat fish caught in Connecticut waterways more than once a month. In some places, the warnings are more severe.
“The Housatonic has the largest set of advisories because of the PCB contamination,” said Brian Toal, an epidemiologist with the Connecticut Department of Public Health. “It has more than any other river or body of water.”
But the advisories have eased over the years as levels have dropped. “We’ve had advisories there since 1977,” Toal said. “At first, it said do not eat any fish caught in the river,” while today some types are deemed safe for some people.
The DPH has a website at www.ct.gov/dph/fish that details what can be safely eaten and how often.
People in high-risk groups, including children and pregnant women, should avoid almost all fish from the river. Bottom feeders like carp and catfish should not be eaten even by people in low-risk groups. Despite the warnings, swimming in the river and its lakes is not considered dangerous.
Even with most of the pollution in another state, Connecticut officials are keeping close watch.
“The better job they do in Massachusetts, the better it is for Connecticut,” said Traci Iott, of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “If you control upstream, and limit downstream transport, it’s to our benefit.”
Costs related to PCBs going forward represent a major issue, she said. “We would be concerned if it wasn’t in there,” she said. “It’s a package deal. If they don’t have one provision, there’s more than one way to solve a problem. We’ll need to figure out what the best way forward is.”