New Bedford Harbor Cleanup a Messy Situation

Site has some of highest concentrations of PCBs in a Superfund marine environment

By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Next month the cleanup of the New Bedford Harbor Superfund site will move closer to completion, when the bid for filling the first confined aquatic disposal (CAD) cell is awarded. The CAD method is being used to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) containment.

However, local activists and members of Hands Across the River Coalition Inc. (HARC) continue to fight for the complete removal of all PCBs from the harbor.

With some 900,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment, the New Bedford Harbor site has some of the highest concentrations of PCBs in a Superfund marine environment, and is the state’s highest priority for remediation.

The first CAD cell will take in about 300,000 cubic yards of PCB-laden sediments at levels between 50 and 190 parts per million (ppm). EPA spokeswoman Kelsey O’Neil said filling of the already-built CAD cell in the harbor is expected to take a year. Material will be mechanically dredged, dewatered and deposited into the CAD cell, then capped with 3 feet of clean fill.

To date, the EPA has spent about $250 million to hydraulically dredge 325,000 cubic yards of the highest contaminated sediments, defined as exceeding 4,000 ppm of PCBs. In comparison, the state has paid $35 million to mechanically dredge and dispose of 250,000 cubic yards from lower-level PCB-contaminated soil in the harbor’s navigational channel.

Part of the difference in cost is the method of disposal, according to Paul Craffey, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection project manager for the state component of the cleanup.

The EPA is currently working on a study to be released this fall on whether to use CAD cells to dispose of the remaining 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. That material is currently slated to be put in three confined disposal facilities on the shoreline or removed offsite. The study proposes additional testing of the shoreline, including salt marshes and wetlands that line the harbor.

“We weren’t anticipating cleaning these areas for 20 to 30 years,” said O’Neill, explaining the need for additional testing. “The recent settlement has allowed us to complete the cleanup in five to seven years.”

Last year, the EPA and the state settled with four of the original parties responsible for the contamination, for $366 million. A previous settlement of $110 million was found to be inadequate, given the amount of contamination. That money ran out in 2004, and EPA used Superfund funding to pay for limited cleanup, at about $15 million annually. A re-opener clause in the settlement agreement allowed EPA and the state to secure additional funding through court action.

Without the recent settlement, EPA estimated that it would take 40 years to remediate the site at $15 million annually.

However, the CAD cell disposal underway and the proposed switch to using CAD cells for the remainder of the PCBs contradicts the 1999 agreement hammered out between EPA and multiple environmental groups over a six-year period. That decision determined the best plan was to remove all PCBs from the upper and lower harbor.

Catalyst for activism
In September 1983, the EPA listed all of New Bedford Harbor as a Superfund site because of PCB contamination, primarily from two electronic capacitor manufacturers. More than 1,000 acres of river bottom and harbor were contaminated, plus 17,000 acres of Buzzards Bay.

According to the original National Priorities Listing, PCB contamination levels were high in the “ambient air, surface water, ground water, soils, sediments, and the food chain,” and at the industrial sites. An estimated 275 tons of PCBs had been discharged by AVX Corp. into the Acushnet River, at the upper reach of the harbor, between the 1940s and mid-1970s. A second plant at the outer harbor dumped PCBs into Buzzards Bay, according to the EPA.

In 1990, the federal agency issued a record of decision (ROD) calling for on-site incineration of a “hot spot” found in the riverbed close to the AVX Corp. plant, where PCB levels were testing at more than 10,000 ppm. On removal, the material tested as high as 200,000 ppm.

This hot spot ignited several community groups to join together in opposition to the incinerator. Now called HARC, the coalition was 600 members strong at the time.

Fairhaven resident Claudia Kirk recalled HARC demonstrators forming a human chain, holding hands across the Acushnet River on Route 6 from Fairhaven to New Bedford, to show the EPA they were united against the incinerator.

Their activism worked. Although the incinerator was already loaded on tractor trailers headed to New Bedford, HARC, in 1993, stopped the incinerator from being built, Kirk said.

The 1999 ROD amendment refers to their work as “a vehement and Congressionally supported reversal of public support for the incineration component of the clean-up plan at about the time the incinerator was being mobilized.”

The EPA agreed to remove the most highly contaminated soil and dispose of it offsite. By September 2000, the agency had hydraulically dredged about 14,000 cubic yards from the hot spot, pumped it to an onshore confined disposal facility (CDF) on Sawyer Street, and then desanded and dewatered the contaminated material before sending it to a licensed PCB disposal facility in Michigan.

In 2010 and 2012, the ROD was further modified to permit the disposal of lower-level PCB-contaminated soil in a CAD cell in the harbor bottom, instead of placing it in CFDs on land near the shoreline or removing it offsite. The CAD cell disposal method reduces the remediation cost considerably and the time to complete the cleanup to five to seven years, according to the EPA.

But that method includes using mechanical dredging, something HARC strongly opposes.

Air-quality issues
The recent $366 million settlement and the imminent CAD cell contract would seem to make HARC’s current efforts futile.

Karen Vilandry, HARC vice president, said the need to get EPA to adopt higher air-quality standards during remediation, to use hydraulic dredging instead of mechanical dredging with clamshell dredges, and to remove all of the PCBs from the Acushnet River and New Bedford Harbor will take the same effort as stopping the incinerator.

But, she said, “People have grown complacent.”

HARC president Edwin Rivera noted that the hydraulic dredging used to vacuum up PCB-contaminated sediment from the upper harbor didn’t expose the material to air. The material was piped to the Sawyer Street treatment plant for separation, then piped back to the processing center and shipped offsite, he said.

EPA’s plan for the lower harbor, south of Coggeshall Street, is to load contaminated harbor mud onto barges with clamshell dredges. Rivera said PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants that lay at the bottom of the harbor will be emitted into the air during dewatering.

“The effect of CAD cell remediation on air quality is far different than what the EPA described,” said Vilandry, who claimed the EPA CAD cell is the only PCB cell being placed near a residential neighborhood in the United States.

“It’s not just a New Bedford problem,” Rivera said. “It’s on all sides of the Acushnet River. It’s a problem for all of us.”

Kirk said that after the incinerator was quashed, people began to move on to other projects. Others are still willing to cheer from the sidelines and let HARC keep up the fight, but HARC members say that’s part of the problem.

“They feel that that took care of it. But things are going horribly wrong again,” said Fairhaven resident Susan Grace, a longtime HARC member.