Tuesday, September 9, 2008

GE, Pittsfield

GE, Pittsfield

I don't really know what ever got me started on it, but since I started working in the environmental field I've had this weird interest in the General Electric mess in Pittsfield, MA.

Just for a snort, here's the website for the 'brownfield redevelopment' of part of the site into an office park-- it's kind of a joke. Link Lots of marketing talk, but no real mention that the place is the worst hazardous waste mess westa Woosta.

Long story short-- GE had an enormous factory there for most of the 20th century. Among other things, they made electrical transformers. The usual dielectric (insulating) fluids used in transformers between the 1930s and the late 1970s contained polychlorinated biphenyls (aka PCBs), nearly-indestructible manmade compounds that produce a wide variety of extremely nasty health effects. GE was extremely sloppy in what they did with this stuff, which they brought in by the railroad tank car load, and a lot of it wound up in the soil and groundwater, or in the Housatonic River. The river is now polluted with PCBs for much of its length. They also used industrial waste (and contaminated soil) as fill in river oxbows when the river was straightened as a flood control project in the 1930s, and gave contaminated dirt away for free (or paid people to take it) to Pittsfield residents looking to landscape their yards. Have a look at this map for sites known to have contaminated fill on them (opens as .pdf). Silver Lake is damn near biologically dead-- the Department of Fish and Wildlife actually figure that it's easier to kill the adult fish and scoop them out (to be incinerated as hazardous material) than anything else, because it gets the PCBs which the fish have absorbed out of the ecosystem.

So anyways, the whole plant area and much of the river is a gigantic mess, and there has been a huge public outcry. There have been many lawsuits. The EPA is involved. The Mass DEP has people who work just on the GE cleanup. I am wondering if I couldn't weasel myself into a nice secure state job with vested pension and killer benefits by volunteering to oversee the GE mess, since nobody in the DEP seems to want anything to do with it.

Under a 1999 court case and government consent decree, GE is responsible for cleanup work then valued at a quarter billion dollars. Feel free to adjust for inflation, and the new areas of stuff discovered since '99.

Cleanup is proceeding, not very rapidly.... but as I can attest, cleanups just intrinsically take a long time.

The planned cleanup of a 1.5-mile stretch of river through downtown Pittsfield is expected to yield 43,200 cubic yards of sediment and 46,500 cubic yards of riverbank soil, all of which is assumed to be polluted.

I think I have got used to this environmental job, since my first thought on looking at something like that is not "god, how horrible" but "Ia Cthulhu, where the hell are they going to PUT it???? The largest cleanup I've ever worked on involved about 700 yards of material, and I remember how long that took and how large a hole it made. Piled up, 700 yards is the size of a couple of large houses, and then some. I can't even picture 43,200 yards in my head. The stuff I dug up had oil in it, and you can just recycle that into asphalt and pave a driveway with it. You can't do that with PCBs; one of the big drags on cleanups like the GE is figuring out what to DO with the dangerous crap once you've found it and dug it up.

Perhaps it's just because I'm odd and have some sort of Sam Vimes outlook on justice, but it irritates me that the GE cleanup is being handled as a RCRA Corrective Action rather than a Superfund cleanup. I'm sure there's some good reasons for handling it that way, and that the actual results won't differ by much, but it still kind of offends me that this godsawful mess isn't a Superfund site.

If you want more info, I suggest the EPA Region 1 website. This is an overview map of most of the cleanup areas, also as a .pdf.

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