THE OTHER SIDE: Dumping PCBs on/in Lee - The Berkshire Edge

2022-12-17 12:56:44 By : Mr. XiaoJie Yan

Tragically, GE and the EPA seem determined to conduct 47 thousand truck trips from the Housatonic River to Lee where they will bury approximately one million cubic yards of PCB contaminated soil and sediment.

The people of Lee might very well be living with a massive toxic waste dump for generations because two powerful entities, General Electric (GE) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), refuse to be guided by the Precautionary Principle. Geogrid

THE OTHER SIDE: Dumping PCBs on/in Lee - The Berkshire Edge

I doubt those who represented their towns in the secret negotiations with GE and the EPA will admit that their refusal to demand treatment rather than dumping GE’s Housatonic River PCBs has placed an enormous burden on the citizens of Lee. They divided $25 million of GE’s money, with an additional $8 million to Pittsfield, then agreed to place in Lee the very PCB landfill they didn’t want within their own borders.

When it comes to insisting on a thorough cleanup and treatment of GE’s PCBs, I’m not objective. A founding member of the Board of the Housatonic River Initiative (HRI), I’ve spent decades fighting for a fishable, swimmable river and made the documentary film “Good Things To Life: GE, PCBs and Our Town.”

In these the days of branding, what we’re used to calling a landfill or more likely, a dump, GE and EPA call an Upland Disposal Facility (UDF). Dumps and landfills tend to leak, but just maybe there won’t ever be any human error, and this UDF will survive the tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods the climate crisis has in store for us. Just maybe, this dump will last forever.

With the other towns making it so much easier for GE and the EPA to dump on/in Lee, it’s been left to HRI and the residents of Lee to ask their Board of Health to hold a hearing to investigate the possible health risks the UDF might pose to the townspeople …

… And to hear from Dr. De Simone, a former geology professor at Williams, and Dr. David Carpenter, head of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, and one of the world’s leading researcher of the health effects of exposure to PCBs. And should they find sufficient evidence, to declare the dump an unreasonable risk to the public health under the provisions of M.G.L. Ch. 111 §§ 31 and 143.

I’m not a lawyer, but the Lee Board of Health (LBOH) contends: “EPA has the power under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) to preempt contrary decisions based on state and local laws. EPA does not have the power to preempt regulations of Boards of Health in Massachusetts issued to prevent risks of health to the residents of local towns. MGL c. 111, §§ 31 and 143, were enacted in Massachusetts in 1861. The Massachusetts Supreme Court (MASC) ruled in 1985 that State and Federal Agencies do not have the power to preempt decisions of Boards of Health in Massachusetts related to health risks to the residents of a town. Arthur D. Little v. Commissioner of Health of Cambridge 395 Mass. 535; 481 N.E.2d 441; 1985 Mass.”

According to the official notice of the hearing: “LBOH has three concerns which need to be addressed at the hearing:

Based on previous experience, any proposed action by the Lee Board of Health will likely be contested by the EPA. In his October 5, 2022 letter, John W. Kilborn, Senior Enforcement Counsel, US EPA Region 1 wrote:

“Your letter states that should the BOH issue an order banning the construction of the UDF that such a ban is not preempted by the federal CERCLA statute. As a general matter, federal law preempts or supersedes state and local laws, regulations, ordinances, and other legal actions when they conflict with the federal law. This so-called conflict preemption occurs ‘when compliance with both state and federal law is impossible, or when the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.’ Weaver’s Cove Energy, LLC v. Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, 589 F.3d 458, 472 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Good v. Altria Group, Inc., 501 F.3d 29,47 (1st Cir. 2007)). Conflict preemption is rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Art VI, Clause 2), which invalidates state laws that ‘interfere with, or are contrary to the law of Congress, made in pursuance of the Constitution.’ …

“Several federal courts, including the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, have applied preemption principles to uphold CERCLA cleanups. Specifically, federal courts have held that municipalities lack the authority to impose requirements that conflict with CERCLA cleanups and ‘pose an obstacle to accomplishment of CERCLA’s objectives’ to cleanup hazardous substances …”

Having spent decades trying to get the EPA to live up to one of the most critical provisions of CERCLA, it is annoying to read Kilborn’s claim that EPA’s decision to settle for a temporary and potentially dangerous cleanup solution is “an accomplishment of CERCLA’s objectives.” CERCLA makes clear its preference for treatment: “The President shall select a remedial action that is protective of human health and the environment, that is cost effective, and that utilizes permanent solutions and alternative treatment technologies or resource recovery technologies to the maximum extent practicable.” (Emphasis added.)

EPA Region 1 has acted as if they can easily maneuver around this portion of CERCLA. And that the preference for “permanent solutions and alternative treatment technologies” to “the maximum extent possible” is just wishful thinking. They have actively thwarted any real attempt to find a permanent solution. It is especially galling because such a successful treatment technology exists for this site: Thermal Desorption.

While watching the November 19, 2022 LBOH Adjudicatory Public Hearing, I found myself linking the attempts of one small town’s Board of Health to protect the public heath of their community from an unnecessary toxic PCB dump to the seemingly immense problems we face with the climate crisis. Yes, the unwillingness of powerful corporations and our powerful federal government to implement and practice the Precautionary Principle continues to put all of us at risk.

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment of Washington State offers a short description: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Consider this idea: “[E]ven if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically,” as you think about the concerns of De Simone and Carpenter and the certainty the EPA brings to what is an understandably complex dispute about the safety, and life expectancy, of a landfill that does not yet exist. (Emphasis added.)

The Precautionary Principle was codified in Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: “The precautionary principle is increasingly recognized as a foundation for decision making to protect human health and the environment. Below are its five key elements:

The neglect of these principles explains what is now happening to Lee. For so many decades, GE violated the Precautionary Principle in favor of increased profits. Why bother warning your employees of the dangers they face working up to their elbows in PCB oil? Why construct a self-contained drainage system for your Pittsfield plants to capture the toxic oil spilling from their transformers when it’s easier to let it all flow down the existing drains? Who cares about the gigantic underground toxic lakes forming beneath the surface, crossing East Street, contaminating local Pittsfield homes and businesses then seeping into the Housatonic River and moving downstream as far as Long Island Sound?

Then, when caught, GE lied and denied and never stopped fighting to limit what they would clean and how much they would spend to do it. As for some shared responsibility, for years, both our state and federal environmental agencies accepted GE’s deceptive characterization of the extent of the contamination. Despite pleas from HRI for independent testing, GE’s contractors did all the testing in the Housatonic River. Not surprisingly, our environmental agencies first assured the public there were 22 thousand pounds of PCBs in the river.

By 1988, GE and the EPA revised the figure upward to 40 thousand pounds. But in 1990, I learned the truth from Ed Bates, the former Manager of Tests at GE’s Power Transformer. Based on actual use and loss rates, he estimated that more than a million and a half pounds of PCBs had gone down the drains and into the River. Estimating there were probably 500 thousand pounds of PCBs still remaining in the soil and sediment.

Tractor-trailer loads of Fuller’s Earth—the kitty litter like substance used to soak up spilled oil—left the GE plant every day looking for places like the city landfill and building sites to dump it. Former GE employees and truckers told HRI where they had dumped contaminated materials, concerned that playgrounds, athletic fields, and school yards had subsequently been built on these former dumpsites.

Yet time and again, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was unwilling to accept that, despite a legal Consent Decree they had signed, GE was lying and that the extent of PCB-contamination was so much more extensive than they imagined. After HRI suggested an anonymous toll-free number, they soon realized that hundreds of homes in Pittsfield had significant levels of PCBs in their front and backyards. While the DEP level for PCB contamination of residential properties was set at two parts per million (2 ppm) some of these homes had levels as high 44 thousand ppm. And ultimately, DEP required GE to clean 180 properties.

Our experience with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) was equally disappointing. We repeatedly asked them to conduct a health study of Pittsfield residents living near the GE Plant. MDPH extended their study to include those who lived alongside the Housatonic and took blood samples to measure, in parts per billion (ppb) the levels of PCBs in their blood. The MDPH study concluded, “typical PCB levels, in the serum of non-occupationally exposed individuals range from about four to eight ppb, with 95 percent at or below 20 ppb (ATSDR 1996). The serum PCB levels found in the Exposure Prevalence Study and Volunteer Study were generally consistent with reports, of non-occupationaIly exposed individuals. Since the levels obtained from the Exposure Prevalence Study were from the participants with the highest risk of potential environmental exposures (the ones selected due to residence within half a mile of the river and due to highest scores), it is reasonable to believe that serum PCB levels of most non-occupationally-exposed residents in the HRA communities should be in the national background range.” (Emphasis added.)

Talk about a crucial human error. MDPH used an out-of-date figure for the background level—the baseline level ordinary people without occupational exposure to PCBs have in their blood. In fact, the accurate background level was not four to eight parts per billion but rather 0.9 to 1.5 ppb. MDPH had mistakenly reassured people who in fact had PCB levels four times to almost seven times higher than average.

Magnifying the impact of that human error, GE immediately used that misinformation for a series of full-page newspaper ads in the local Berkshire Eagle to prove to residents that there was no reason for any concern about their PCBs.

Jump ahead decades, and the efforts of so many GE workers, Pittsfield residents, small business owners, a brave and conscientious attorney Cristobal Bonifaz, sportsmen, and HRI, and by 2000, you have an important cleanup of the first two miles of the Housatonic River. Unfortunately, the EPA was willing to let GE build a second PCB landfill across from the Allendale Elementary School.

The EPA often tells people how safe the Hill 68 and Building 71 landfills are, yet as their March 7, 2006 letter to Mayor Ruberto reveals, the pediatricians of Pittsfield thought otherwise:

“Even with the best of intentions, attempts to adequately monitor Allendale School and Hill 78 areas by GE and various Federal and State agencies have fallen short and have been subject to a variety of interpretations. Adherence to outdated protocols and miscommunications between agencies has further undermined the monitoring process.

“There is an emerging body of scientific information pointing to airborne (both volatilized and suspended) PCB’s as being a significant form of exposure, something that was barely understood at the time the consent decree was signed. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), clearly states that breathing air near hazardous waste sites is a potential route of exposure to humans.

“The unique vulnerabilities of children also demand special emphasis. To quote the ATSDR’s 2003 Review of the GE Site – Hill 78 Area, ‘children are at greater risk than adults from certain kinds of exposure to hazardous substances emitted from waste sites. They are more likely exposed because they play outdoors and because they often bring food into contaminated areas. Because of their smaller stature, they might breathe dust, soil, and heavy vapors close to the ground.’ We absolutely agree with this.

“The ATSDR report also emphasizes that, ‘if the use of the site (e.g. residential development) or its physical characteristics were to change (e.g. excavations in areas of higher subsurface PCB levels), the conditions of institutional controls (e.g. fences) were to deteriorate, or remedial activities are not properly maintained by the environmental regulatory agencies and GE (e.g. the land fill cap), the site would likely pose a public health hazard in the future, depending on the extent to which opportunities for exposure increase’.

“The movement of large trucks over the site and the dumping of additional hazardous wastes at Hill 78 have clearly changed the physical characteristics of the site, and place the Allendale School children at potential health risk …

“We applaud the initiative of the Allendale School Task Force, and we urge GE and EPA to consider safer alternatives than the consolidation of PCB wastes adjacent to an elementary school. We should not let these children and our community down.”

The letter was signed by the following: Siobhan McNally, M.D.; Richard Rosenfeld M.D.; Alan Kulberg, M.D.; Jacqueline Jones, M.D.; Diane Piraino, M.D.; Gary Shalan, M.D.; John Dallenbach, M.D.; Julia Feudo, M.D.; Brian Dempsy, M.D.; Michael Fabrizio, M.D.; and Vicki Smith, M.D.

Sadly, once again, GE and the EPA are willing to ignore the Precautionary Principle and allow another massive landfill, this time within the 12,276 acres of river and floodplain that Massachusetts has designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) brought together scientists and health professionals to strategize about “The precautionary principle: protecting public health, the environment and the future of our children.” They wrote: “Precaution has been at the heart of public health protection for centuries, and the precautionary principle is indeed related to acting under uncertainty, an increasingly common circumstance in these days. The precautionary principle has been gaining prominence and profile and has become a guiding principle in modern thinking in environment and health … If used intelligently, imaginatively and daringly, the precautionary principle will support efforts to strive towards a healthier and safer world.”

Unfortunately, if you read the documents the EPA and GE have submitted to the Lee Board of Health, you’ll see that they admit to no uncertainty, and instead offer a dangerous mix of authority and arrogance hardly warranted in a time when glaciers disappear in a lifetime.

How can they truly predict that the geology of the area they’ve chosen won’t present problems in the near, or not so near future—that increased rainfall, melting, for example, or increasingly powerful storms might not threaten the stability of the landfill, its liner system? That the groundwater, and Lee’s aquifer won’t be compromised? That the PCBs in the contaminated sediment being transported to the UDF, or dumped there, won’t volatilize, endangering not only Lee’s source of drinking water but residential neighborhoods, downtown Lee, schools, day care centers, and areas where children play?

The LBOH noted their concerns about Dr. De Simone’s written comments and asked GE to respond:

These are the conclusions of David J. De Simone that LBOH finds disturbing:

“My primary concern for this site as a landfill is that a leak in the liner and leachate collection system will eventually occur; then, leachate will have no natural sediment barrier to flow in the subsurface. EPA has stated ‘First, even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration…’ (53 Federal Register 33345, August 30, 1988). The sand and gravel aquifer will become contaminated and leachate will easily infiltrate underlying bedrock. This is a poor site for a landfill …

“The bottom line is the geology of the proposed PCB landfill location is very likely to result in leachate contamination of surficial and bedrock aquifers if leachate penetrates the landfill liners. Based upon site geology, PCB disposal in a landfill in this location is a very poor choice that may result in PCB contamination of the sand and gravel aquifer and the underlying Stockbridge marble aquifer.” (Emphasis in the original report by De Simone.)

“[T]he primary finding [of the DeSimone Report] confirms what is already known and documented in the [Administrative Record]: there are permeable soils underlying the UDF location. EPA agrees that such soils are permeable and, based upon monitoring well elevation data, that the localized groundwater flows towards the River. EPA, however, has accounted for these facts and has determined that the UDF will be protective of human health and the environment. The report neither addresses nor rebuts these findings. At most, the Report expresses a mere difference of opinion. Dr. DeSimone does not address the low-level concentrations of the PCBs designated for the UDF; the chemical nature of PCBs that does not make them prone to migration in groundwater; or, based upon monitoring well data, the upwelling of groundwater near the UDF that would prevent any contamination from reaching the bedrock. (Footnotes and citations omitted.)” (Emphasis added.)

Of course, De Simone’s expertise has nothing to do with “the chemical nature of PCBs” but with geology. As for Mr. Kilborn’s contention that “the chemical nature of PCBs [does] not make them prone to migration in groundwater,” well, the PCBs to be deposited in the UDF have already attached themselves to sediment or bank soil and having originated in Pittsfield demonstrated their ability to travel in water.

When the Board of Health asked Dr. DeSimone to respond, he noted: “I’ve done work with monitoring wells, borings … I would wonder and would suggest to them that they have a longer record of groundwater monitoring in those groundwater monitoring wells to see if any upward direction of flow from bedrock into overlying sand and gravel is something which is persistent, which lasts through different seasons, precipitation events … [Because] there are times, there are hydro-geologic conditions when flows may go downward or upward between bedrock and sand and gravel as long as there is no barrier between them and there isn’t a barrier here …”

Then, without ever mentioning the Precautionary Principle, he made the case for why it’s so very important: “[W]hen we would teach environmental geology at Williams one thing that we would teach would be how you select the site for an underground disposal facility. Whether it’s highly contaminated waste or low level, nuclear waste or whatever, and we would always state that double triple layer composite liners with leachate collection are great fantastic bits of engineering and they work really, really well until they leak. Once they leak … I feel you need to have a natural environment beneath the landfill which contains non-permeable sediment … You probably want a good ten feet of till … If not till you want something similarly non-permeable in the over burden. Glacial lake clays and silt barbs … The valley where the proposed UDF would be located did not have a glacial lake, that kind of setting where you’d accumulate ten or more feet of barbed sediment, which would have very low permeability … The idea of all this is to protect the bedrock aquifer … Expecting, anticipating that if there’s an overlying unconfined aquifer above the impermeable sediment it’s likely to become contaminated should there ever be a leak … I mean it’s really hard to anticipate where the leaks form … A leak could form during construction. You tear the liner. And not know it and the liner could be torn and you’d have a leak. You never know.”

Without a scintilla of doubt, the EPA has determined that the UDF will be protective. Yet, what they really do here is describe the liner system, then peremptorily declare it successful:

“As stated in the 2020 Response to Comments, ‘[w]hen two geomembrane liners are used in conjunction with a drainage layer designed to limit liquid head (water pressure) on the liner system, studies have demonstrated that the liner efficiency can be 99.9% or better.‘ Assessment and Recommendations for Improving the Performance of Waste Containment Systems, EPA/600/R-02/099, 2002. 2020 Response to Comments, page 18. As further stated in the 2020 Response to Comments, ‘[t]he composite liner system is recognized as a best available liner technology to contain waste materials and has been shown to have a service life of 400- 800 years. Technical Memo, URS, 2008; White Paper #6, GRI Institute, 2005 (updated 2011).’ Id. These cover and liner systems have been used for many decades at landfills across the nation. Id.” (Emphasis added.)

Four hundred to 800 years? It wasn’t until 1979 that PCBs were banned in America and not until the next year that CERCLA was passed to regulate how we deal with toxic hazardous waste. So I went to that 2002 study, “Assessment and Recommendations for Improving the Performance of Waste Containment Systems.” Not an engineer nor a lawyer, but it was clear to me that there were limitations to the data, questions allowing for far less certainty. First, the 800-year lifetime assessment was based on computer modelling, and conclusions about effectiveness and durability were based on laboratory tests and not real-life conditions equivalent to the planned Lee UDF.

When it came to evaluating existing landfills, the conclusions were far less absolute: “Waste containment system problems were identified at 74 modern landfill and surface impoundment facilities located throughout the U.S. … Conclusions are: (1) the number of facilities with identified problems is relatively small in comparison to the total number of modern facilities nationwide; however, the search for problems was by no means exhaustive … among the landfill problems, 70 percent were liner system related and 30 percent were cover system related; however, the ratio of liner system problems to cover system problems is probably exaggerated by the fact that a number of the facilities surveyed were active and did not have a cover system … the identified problems can be grouped into the following general categories: (i) slope instability of liner systems or cover systems or excessive deformation of these systems (44 percent); (ii) defectively constructed liners, leachate collection and removal systems (LCRSs) or LDSs, or cover systems (29 percent); (iii) degraded liners, LCRSs or LDSs, or cover systems (18 percent); and (iv) malfunction of LCRSs or LDSs or operational problems with these systems (9 percent); (5) considering a principal human factor contributing to the problem criterion, the identified problems are classified as follows: (i) design (48 percent); (ii) construction (38 percent); and (iii) operation (14 percent) …” (Pages vii-viii) (Emphasis added.)

I located another 2011 report from the same Geosynthetic Research Institute (GRI) entitled “Geomembrane Lifetime Prediction: Unexposed and Exposed Conditions.” They were far more modest in their discussion of the longevity of geomembrane liners, including this note: “By virtue of its widespread use as liners for solid waste landfills, HDPE is by far the widest studied type of geomembrane. Note that in most countries (other than the U.S.), HDPE is the required geomembrane type for solid waste containment … Invariably whether used in landfill liner or cover applications the geomembrane is covered. After ten-years of research … it is seen that HDPE decreases its predicted lifetime (as measured by its halflife) from 446-years at 20C, to 69-years at 40C. Other geomembrane types (LLDPE, fPP, EPDM and PVC) have had essentially no focused effort on their covered lifetime prediction of the type described herein. That said, all are candidates for additional research in this regard.” (Pages 22-23)

Again, a far more balanced recognition of imperfection and uncertainty.

The other expert to weigh in was Dr. David Carpenter, head of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, and one of the world’s leading researcher of the health effects of exposure to PCBs.

In his paper, “Exposure to and health effects of volatile PCBs,” for Reviews on Environmental Health, Dr. Carpenter writes, “Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent, lipophilic contaminants that are known to increase risk of a number of human diseases. Although ingestion of animal fats is a major route of exposure, there is increasing evidence that inhalation of vapor-phase PCBs is also important and may be as or even more important than ingestion under some circumstances. The evidence that inhalation of PCBs may cause cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes is reviewed and presented in this report …”

Dr. Carpenter, via Zoom, reflected on his work with the Mohawk Akwesasne tribe and PCB contamination coming from a General Motors plant and an unlined PCB landfill: “There is almost no way even with a good liner, it’s going to be permeable in time. There will be breaks in the liner and you will have leachate coming from a landfill … I mean I understand the need to dredge contaminated sediments out … It’s really important if you’re going to take contamination and sediments and put them in a landfill that you put them in a landfill that’s as far away from people and far away from rivers as far away from as any source of harm as possible …”

The testimony revealed to me, from both the geological characteristics of the site, with the resultant engineering challenges, and the very possible dangers to human health from siting a toxic PCB landfill near to Lee’s water supply, and close to where people live and gather, some very compelling reasons to oppose this UDF.

Which leads me to yet another unsettling reality: The EPA and the Rest of River Municipalities have agreed to give GE, not an independent group of environmental engineers, the lifetime responsibility to monitor and guarantee the safety of the UDF.

Do any of these people have a clue or care about GE’s record of negligence, their repeated non-compliance with a range of federal and state mandates? Just a few examples:

GE pleaded guilty in United States District Court in Cincinnati and agreed to pay $9.5 million in fines for criminal charges and $59.5 million to settle a related civil case. The New York Times notes: “General Electric was charged in the criminal case with defrauding the United States Government of $26.5 million intended to pay for the purchase by Israel of engines for F-16 fighters.” (Emphasis added.)

According to the New York Times of July 27, 1990, “[T]he General Electric Company, which was convicted in a jury trial in February of overcharging the Army for a battlefield computer system, agreed yesterday to pay one of the largest fines ever assessed for defrauding the Defense Department … G.E. will pay $16.1 million in criminal and civil penalties …” (Emphasis added.)

According to CorpWatch, “On May 29, 1991, GE personnel accidentally moved about 320 pounds of uranium to a waste treatment tank. The danger of the mistake was that the size and shape of the waste container caused unsafe concentrations of uranium, which could have led to a nuclear accident … The NRC found that the mistake was the result of lax safety controls.” (Emphasis added.)

Jim Brumm reports in Reuters, September 30, 2011: “GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has warned operators of boiling water reactors (BWR) worldwide—including 35 in the U.S.—that the plants could fail to shut automatically during an earthquake, potentially risking the safety of the power plant.” (Emphasis added.)

“Nuclear Regulatory Commission fines GE-Hitachi in Wilmington” states in WECT News, October 24, 2011: “The NRC also identified multiple violations which indicates a significant lack of management attention to ensuring compliance with safety regulations … ”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued two repeated and three serious violations to General Electric. A December 2015 investigation found the manufacturer of specialty fluorescent lamps exposed workers to amputation and other serious injuries at its Circleville Lamp Plant.” (Emphasis added.)

I’ll leave it you to check out a partial list of OSHA citations to General Electric during the period from May 3, 2017 to May 3, 2022.

Would you want GE to monitor and manage a toxic landfill in your town? The EPA does. And so do the member towns of the Rest of River Committee and those who took GE’s money.

Yet another ironic note: BFA Environmental Consultants reminds us that the disastrous first PCB dump, the North Carolina Warren County PCB landfill, is now recognized as birthplace of the Environmental Justice movement: “The facility which had been in existence for more than 15 years had never had a comprehensive evaluation performed … The remediation was concluded in 2003 by excavating and thermally desorbing then redisposing of over 60,000 tons of PCB impacted soil, at a cost of 13.6 million dollars.”  (Emphasis added.)

I didn’t realize that solving the Warren County problem involved the use of thermal desorption to treat the PCB waste. I’ve been writing about, talking about, officially commenting to the EPA my belief that thermal desorption can treat our Housatonic PCB contamination. And that at the very least the treatment process deserves an open, independent pilot test. Not only has the EPA said no, but actively intervened, using a ridiculous technicality to keep HRI from raising the issue before its own Environmental Appeals Board.

In my comments regarding the EPA’s 2020 Proposed Revised Cleanup Plan, I documented the EPA’s unwillingness over many years to conduct an honest, thorough, and scientifically-based evaluation of the current version of thermal desorption.

I urge you to investigate TerraTherm’s impressive record cleaning and treating toxic dioxin contamination for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) at the Danang Airbase in Vietnam. You can read the final report of the Danang remediation here. And here are some quotes:

“The project was a resounding success in treating dioxin contaminated soil and sediments, with resulting post-treatment dioxin levels well below the required limits. However, gaps in planning and testing hindered project performance relating to soil characterization, which in turn led to delays and higher project costs. From the point of view of the higher-level goal of treating dioxin contaminated areas, the project was a success.”

AID concluded: “The Project cost 669 USD per ton to treat the material compared to similar methods which ranged from 337 – 5,205 USD per ton. The Danang project treated roughly 7.8 times more material than did the lowest cost project. Conclusions The project was cost effective, being the third least expensive project examined out of 10 technologies.”

As to whether this process will work here, TerraTherm President James Gilligan submitted a letter to HRI’s attorney Andrew Rainer expressing his confidence that they could successfully treat Housatonic river sediments:

“TerraTherm’s thermal conduction heating (TCH) technology can be applied in-situ to treat subsurface contaminants in place, or ex-situ to treat excavated soils and sediment in small containers or in larger constructed aboveground piles. We refer to the ex-situ treatment approach as in-pile thermal desorption (IPTD®). With either the in-situ or ex-situ (IPTD®) approach, contaminants are destroyed through a combination of oxidation and pyrolysis, and extracted vapors are treated using aboveground vapor treatment equipment capable of achieving 99.9999 percent destruction and removal efficiency (typically using a thermal oxidizer operating at 1100°C with a second residence time, in accordance with Stockholm Convention protocols). TerraTherm has successfully applied our thermal treatment technology to remediate PCBs with starting concentrations well over 10,000 mg/kg (10,000 parts-per-million, ppm) down to concentrations well below 1 mg/kg (1 ppm). I am confident that TerraTherm’s aboveground IPTD® approach can successfully treat PCB contaminated sediment excavated or dredged from the Housatonic River, to achieve applicable regulatory standards.”

Despite EPA’s assurances that they performed all necessary evaluations of applicable technologies before their decision to build a massive PCB landfill, the reality is that GE performed only one full scale treatability study of an alternate remedial technology, the chemical extraction process of Soil Washing during October and November 2007. GE and the EPA never actually performed the kind of pilot testing of thermal desorption that HRI had asked for.

Tragically, GE and the EPA seem determined to conduct 47 thousand truck trips from the Housatonic River to Lee where they will bury approximately one million cubic yards of PCB contaminated soil and sediment.

This stubbornness reveals an unwillingness to admit mistakes, to accept that these decisions ultimately defy certainty and that such complex issues, with such enormous consequences for the public health and safety of the people of Lee, deserve a willingness to apply the Precautionary Principle and to test the very possible permanent solution CERCLA encourages.

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