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Release Date: 06/04/1998
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, 617-918-1008 Alice Kaufman, 617-918-1064 Stephanie Cutter in Washington, 202-260-9828

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Regional Administrator John P. DeVillars today announced the issuance of an enforcement order and other immediate steps to protect public health and address PCB-related pollution in and along a two-mile section of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, MA.

The EPA's actions require General Electric to:

    • Immediately commence a series of steps that will lead to PCB removal from the first 1/2-mile of the Upper Reach of the river.
    • Eliminate continuing PCB discharges into the river from its 254-acre manufacturing facility.
    • Take interim measures to limit public exposure to contaminated sediments and floodplain soils in the two-mile Upper Reach of the river.
EPA also announced it will move forward with full community involvement to develop an engineering plan for cleanup of the lower 1 miles of river and floodplains in the Upper Reach, which are also highly contaminated with PCBs. EPA indicated that cleanup activities for this 1-mile reach of river will commence immediately after completion of cleanup work in the first mile.

As he has reiterated from the outset of negotiations last fall, DeVillars said EPA is fully committed to resuming negotiations for a comprehensive settlement, even as the agency moves forward with today's actions and the proposed Superfund listing.

In a letter delivered today to Stephen D. Ramsey, GE's vice president of corporate environmental programs, DeVillars again requests that GE immediately return to negotiations with EPA and other public agencies for a negotiated resolution that fully protects public health and guarantees river cleanup, natural resource damage compensation, and cleanup and redevelopment of GE's property. DeVillars recommended that negotiations resume immediately and proposed Aug. 14 as a deadline for achieving a negotiated settlement.

"We continue to have a strong preference for an acceptable negotiated settlement, but we will never compromise public health and the environment to achieve it," DeVillars said.

The enforcement order includes a delayed effective date of Aug. 14 so that GE will have an opportunity to do the initial work called for in the order voluntarily. The order will not be put into effect before Aug. 14 as long as GE meets various work deadlines set out in the order and as long as they return to the negotiating table and negotiate in good faith toward a comprehensive settlement.

"We have very dangerous levels of PCBs throughout the first two miles of the river and floodplain," DeVillars said. "It's EPA's job to take action that protects kids, pregnant women and others who are currently at risk. That means getting the river cleanup underway right now. If GE fails to move forward or if they waiver, we will use the full force of federal law to get the job done. And then we'll send them the bill."

In his letter to Ramsey, DeVillars states: "If GE chooses not to comply with any portion of the order or if the order is delayed due to litigation, EPA is prepared to commit Superfund money to perform the response actions set forth in the scope of work, and thus guarantee to the citizens of Berkshire County that the work necessary for protection of their health will be accomplished according to the schedule I outlined in April."

Today's action honors EPA's commitment of April 6 to initiate steps this spring to expedite cleanup activities in the river's two-mile Upper Reach, which runs from the General Electric property to the river's confluence with the West Branch.

DeVillars also reaffirmed EPA's desire to help advance economic redevelopment of the GE facility. "As EPA Administrator Browner has repeatedly emphasized, Pittsfield's economic future should not be played off against the health protection of its residents," DeVillars said. "We believe we can achieve both economic opportunity and a healthy environment. We will continue to work very hard to see that we do."

EPA's actions are based on extensive studies, including a recently-completed Human Health Risk Evaluation and Ecological Risk Assessment. (Summary attached.) The studies were peer reviewed and endorsed by EPA Headquarters. The studies document the widespread prevalence of PCBs in and along the two-mile section of the river as well as high human health and environmental risks from exposure to those PCBs.

Today's actions also are based on data showing that previously cleaned-up floodplain areas are being recontaminated by PCBs from the river during routine flooding.

The health risk evaluation, co-authored by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, analyzed cancer and noncancer risks from short-term exposure - less than 10 years - to PCB contaminated sediments, riverbank soils and floodplain soils as well as from consumption of PCB-contaminated fish. Potential noncancer effects from PCB exposure include reproductive and developmental abnormalities (such as lower IQs), liver damage, and adverse impacts on nervous systems.

The health risk evaluation shows that some of the highest human health risks are on the lower 1 1/2-mile section of the two-mile Upper Reach.

DeVillars said the risk evaluation supports the agency's position that the entire two-mile section of river may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health. This conclusion provides EPA with the basis for issuing a time-critical enforcement order and the authority to take other response actions as well.

The Ecological Risk Assessment evaluated the environmental impacts PCBs are having on water quality and aquatic species along the two-mile Upper Reach. DeVillars said the assessment supports the agency's position that PCB contamination may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the environment.

The unilateral enforcement order was issued under Section 106 of the Superfund Program, known officially as the Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The statute provides for penalties of up to $27,500 a day for noncompliance with a 106 order.

The enforcement order and other EPA actions will result in:

    • Removal of PCB-contaminated river sediments and riverbank soils from a 1/2-mile stretch of the Housatonic River, nearest the GE plant, between Newell and Lyman Streets. The order requires that a conceptual removal plan be submitted by July 10 of this year, that excavation work begin by June 1999 and that the work be finished by July 1, 2000. DeVillars said EPA will finance excavation work if GE fails to do so.
    • Implementation of source-control measures to prevent continuing PCB discharges into the river that are coming from plumes and other pollution sources on GE's property, despite previous source-control efforts. The order requires that the work begin by November 1 of this year. A monitoring program will also be required to ensure that the source-control measures are working.
    • Installation of fencing, warning signs or other measures that will limit public exposure to contaminants in the two-mile section of the river. The order requires that a work plan be submitted by June 26 and that actual work begin by Aug. 1.
(Work plans for the three activities listed above will be subject to public review and public comments.)
    • Initiation by EPA of an engineering evaluation for remediating the bottom 1 miles of the Upper Reach. The study, known as an Engineering Evaluation and Cost Analysis (EECA), will focus on the various options for removing and controlling contaminated sediments, riverbank soils and floodplain soils.
After reviewing the EECA report, EPA will select a proposed action in early 1999 that will be subject to a 30-day public comment period. A final decision on a cleanup plan will then be made later in 1999. Actual remediation work - expected to be done by GE - will be done immediately after completion of the remediation work on the top -mile of the river.

Today's action plan comes after seven months of negotiations between EPA, GE and numerous other public agencies failed to result in a comprehensive cleanup agreement. On two occasions EPA extended those negotiations.

PCBs, a group of organic chemicals, had been used since 1926 in electric transformers as a coolant and insulation. GE used PCBs for manufacturing and servicing of electrical transformers at the Pittsfield facility from the 1930s through 1977. PCBs are extremely persistent in the environment because they break down very slowly and bioaccumulate in animals. Congress banned the use and distribution of PCBs in 1977.