LEE – Will the liner of the dump leak PCBs into the permeable earth and will they reach the aquifer? One geologist says they could.
And what about the 48,384 annual dump truck runs through Lee’s streets over a four-year period?
Those 15-ton trucks will each carry the PCB-laden soil to an upland disposal facility after it is removed from the Houston River as part of the rest of the river cleanup.
Will sludge spill or leak from the sides and undercarriage of the trucks during transport? Will there be any dust?
How these and other elements of General Electric Co.’s PCB disposal plan will affect the health of Lee residents and surrounding communities is being considered by the Lee Board of Health, which held a supporting hearing Saturday at Lee Middle & High . School Auditorium.
The board’s involvement was prompted by the nonprofit Houston River Initiative, which is appealing the current cleanup in federal court.
If the board decides the dump will be a health hazard, another question arises.
Does the board have the legal right to stop it if it violates local laws? The board says state law gives them the authority. EPA says it is not.
It’s a question that could land in the state supreme court.
Meanwhile, the board — equipped with Cristóbal Bonifaz, a Conway-based environmental lawyer known for his litigation against Chevron — is forging ahead.
It collects technical and other expert documents to help decide, and will allow 30 days to submit more testimony and other relevant information that specifically relates to the threat to human health posed by the dump.
The demonstrations so far were drawn from a number of sources, including existing documents from the Environmental Protection Agency, which after denying a permit in 2016 to allow contaminated sediment to be stored locally was reversed in 2020.
GE has sought to dispose of the sediment in the Berkshires to avoid the $200 million cost of shipping it out of state to a facility licensed to accept toxins such as PCBs.
But notably absent from the hearing — about 60 attended — were company representatives as well as EPA officials, though the agency has referred the board to its records.
GE is another story. The board said in its hearing notice that GE’s lack of involvement would be taken as a conclusion that the company had “no evidence” that the dump would not be a danger to the community.
‘Until they leak’
The testimony of an award-winning geologist in particular has worried the board.
David J. De Simone, a retired professor and consultant, explained that it is his view that the underlying sand and gravel aquifer, as well as the Stockbridge Marble aquifer, contain “bedrock fractures” and are permeable.
The landfill and its liner have been designed to be efficient, he said.
“But if they ever leak, there will be no barrier to further spread of contamination,” De Simone said. “They’re brilliant feats of engineering, and they work really well until they leak. Leaks can happen during manufacturing. You can tear off the liner and not know it.
While the EPA agrees with De Simone’s permeability analysis, the agency says they did not take into account factors such as low PCB concentrations and the nature of the chemicals, said board chairman Dr. Robert Wespiser.
De Simone also said that he hasn’t seen data like “well logs” from Boring that could help him understand the risks with total certainty.
Dr. David Carpenter, an Albany, NY-based physician and professor known for his work on the health hazards of “destabilization” of PCBs in the air, said this is another concern.
While he is not opposed to securing landfills, they should be in the right places.
“What’s really important if you’re going to take [contamination] and put it in the dustbin away from humans [and] as far as the rivers [as possible]Carpenter said.
Lee and residents of other communities point to a number of unknown risks.
Leahy resident and former statistical analyst Claire Leahy said GE did not present proper data that could forecast problems — such as climate change or the consequences of tree cutting — that could affect the dump’s sustainability.
“Maybe there’s a one percent chance that it’s going to fail or is it a 40 percent chance that it’s going to fail?” he said. “They should be able to do that study.”
Longtime clean water activist Denny Alsop asked the board to consider that the dump is going to a community that has already been chronically exposed to PCBs and other contamination that could pose other hazards .
Cornelia Kalisher thinks about the impact the dump could have on drinking water reservoirs.
Others are concerned about airborne contamination after soil has been deposited in the dump but has not yet been closed.
Dr. Wespicer said the management and transportation of hazardous sludge is “a big concern of ours.” He said GE has not taken this into account in its planning.
Gail Ceresia is a wetland scientist and a municipal agricultural conservation commissioner who lives in Lee. She said there are more wetlands in the area than recorded by the EPA, and the abundant water flowing west from October Mountain would be on its way to landfills and where dump trucks would go.
“If the landfill leaks, [PCBs] Will go into that water,” she said. “It’s not just [dump] What we’re talking about — that’s the whole process.”
Cindy Mathias asked the board to study cancer in Lee as well as conduct baseline testing of PCB levels in the reservoir. He is also worried about the dump trucks coming from all sides.
“That’s the most dangerous part of this whole situation,” she said. “We’re taking everyone [pollution] – We’re getting Sheffield, Stockbridge, we’re getting Great Barrington, we’re getting Housatonic – everybody, you know, signed it and put it in our little town.
The Tri-Town Board of Health unanimously approved a motion by Lenox member Dr. John Kearns to plan an educational session on the Upland Disposal Facility – “and then decide where we go from there.”