Timeline: GE’s Housatonic Cleanup Has Dragged on for Decades

The Housatonic River in Massachusetts and Connecticut has been polluted by suspected human carcinogen – and known cancer-causing agent in animals – since the 1930s when GE used the lubricant during transformer manufacturing at its Pittsfield plant. And the area has been fighting with the company ever since to get the issue resolved. Decades of delays and whatever health and environmental destruction the PCBs have caused during this time, are outlined below:

The Housatonic River rises in Western Mass and travels south 131 miles through Connecticut to Long Island Sound. The total watershed area is 1,950 square miles – about 500 square miles are in Massachusetts. The watershed covers parts of 24 towns. Members of the Mohican/Algonquin tribe moved to the Hudson Valley in the 1600s. The people who relocated to the Upper Housatonic area were called the “Wusadenuk,” which means beyond the mountain place. The Native American word eventually got mangled into “Housatonic” when white people began to settle the area in 1690.

1800s: Iron and quarry extractions, then paper became big exports from the area. Waste from the Industrial Revolution were dumped into the Housatonic River. By 1946, the Housatonic bubbled with chemicals and ran whichever color the mills were dying the paper that day, according to the Housatonic River Water Quality Analysis 1974 by the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission Division of Water Pollution Control.

1930s: U.S. Geological Survey says General Electric’s Pittsfield plant began using polychlorinated biphenyl or PCBs as lubricant during transformer manufacturing.

1952: Oil traced to a GE transformer is discovered in the basement of a home nearby the company’s plant, according to the U.S. Engineers Draft Final Community Relations Plan of 2002. GE began cleaning up the oil leaks in the early 1960s, the plan says.

1969: General Electric dumps about 1,143 pounds per day of suspended solid waste into the river, according to a Massachusetts Water Resource Commission quality analysis. From 69-74, GE builds a phenol recovery unit. Still, the commission cites GE as the source of “quite possibly the most significant source of pollutants” in the river. GE is not alone in treating the Housatonic poorly: Hinsdale uses the river for domestic waste, while Lanesborough’s septic tanks leak into the water. The Crane Paper Company is also a source of river pollution.

July 10, 1970: During a routine sample analysis, PCBs are discovered in the milk of William De vos’ cows, which graze on a farm in Lenox beside the Housatonic River. The cows are moved to a new pasture and the level of PCBs in the milk drops by half.

Oct. 19, 1970: The New England Milk Producers’ Association seeks relief from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Water Pollution Control Center to locate the sources of the pollution and take “appropriate action” to rectify the situation. Because of the PCBs, the association says in a letter to UMass, De vos can no longer sell his cows’ milk in Connecticut and instead must sell it in Massachusetts at a much cheaper rate.

March 1974: The journal Poultry Science publishes research showing poultry raised eating a PCB-laced diet face serious health and reproductive problems.

1974: Upgrades at GE’s plant decrease the pounds per day of suspended waste the company dumps into the river from 1,143 to 230, according to a water quality analysis.

1977: PCBs are listed as a toxic substance on the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease. The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. because of evidence they build up in the environment and can cause harmful health effects.

July 5, 1977: Connecticut State Department of Health alerts the public not to eat trout taken out of the Housatonic River north of Kent.

Oct. 28, 1977: Connecticut officials warn the public not to eat any fish or frogs from the Housatonic River. PCBs above the federal 5 parts per million (ppm) limit were found in the fish.

1978: A CASE (Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering) report concludes that leakage from GE’s Pittsfield plant is the largest known source of PCBs to the Housatonic River.

April, 1980: GE hires Steward Laboratories, Inc., to establish a database of “adequate knowledge and understanding of PCBs in the sediments of the Housatonic.” At this time PCBs in the sediments are at levels of between 57 ppm and 61 ppm, according to the U.S. Geological Survey 1980-81.

Summer of 1981: GE signs a consent order with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering agreeing to study and report on hazardous waste disposal practices and Housatonic River contamination.

Jan. 25, 1982: GE releases the “Steward” paper, a database of PCB research. In the paper, GE rarely agrees with peer-reviewed journals about the outcomes of PCB research.

November, 1983: The estimated quantity of PCBs in the Massachusetts portion of the Housatonic River is around 39,400 pounds — 90 percent of which can be found in the 12.5 mile region of the river between the GE plant and Woods Pond Dam, according to the EPA.

March 6, 1984: GE releases its initial report on remedial alternatives for the Housatonic River. The company looks at four proposed actions: no action, sediment removal, river channelization, or in-city impoundment for areas where the level is 50 ppm and up. In the report GE states, “GE has concern whether remedial actions — other than taking no action — are justified in light of engineering feasibility, environmental effectiveness, and cost considerations.”

June 1, 1984: The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and General Electric enter into the Housatonic River Agreement, the primary objective of which is to “resolve outstanding questions” about PCB contamination at the river.

Jan. 29, 1988: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering finds GE responsible for the presence of PCBs in the Housatonic River, Woods Pond, and the Mill Pond.

February, 1988: Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports excess bladder cancer among Pittsfield men and area men who had worked at the GE plant in Pittsfield, but that there is no causal association between bladder cancer and occupational exposure among GE workers.

Dec. 30, 1994: GE details the work the company has done so far to clean up PCBs: installation of plantings and excavation of some soil.

April 3, 1998: EPA issues an exasperated press release noting that the environmental agency has spent the last six months in intense negotiations with GE to discuss how to remediate the PCB damage, but common ground cannot be found.

April 6, 1998: EPA announces an action plan for Pittsfield restoration and immediate enforcement orders for clean up of the first two miles of the Housatonic River downstream from the GE plant. The EPA notes that nearly 100 residential, school, and commercial properties in Pittsfield have been identified as in need of environmental remediation and that the agency will seek to have the site listed as a “Superfund,” a designation for extremely polluted land in need of federal resources to either clean up the area and/or get the Department of Justice involved in compelling polluters to pay for their crimes.

May 15, 1998: The EPA’s action plan goes into effect. GE is ordered to excavate contaminated river sediment and remediate or face steep fines.

Aug. 14, 1998: GE Pittsfield is certified as a Superfund.

Aug. 27, 1998: Formal negotiations on PCB remediation between the EPA and GE resume.

Aug. 27, 1999: Waterfowl on the Housatonic in Western Mass are showing elevated concentration of PCBs in their systems — believed to be the highest reported levels in the country. Some ducks are found to have concentrations around 648 ppm. The tolerance level for poultry set by the FDA is 3 ppm.

Oct. 7, 1999: The EPA, Department of Justice, and GE finalize a consent decree that requires GE to undertake cleanup of PCB contamination in the Housatonic River and Berkshire County. The upper half mile of the river is to be cleaned up by 2005 and the federal government will pay $12 million of the $45 million estimated cleanup cost. The entire river remediation is expected to cost $250 million to $700 million.

Dec. 21, 1999: GE accuses the EPA of unilaterally making changes, “supplementing protocols,” to the consent decree. GE requests another round of negotiations.

Feb. 22, 2000: The Housatonic Environmental Action League (HEAL), and The Schaghtichoke Indian Tribe file a civil action claiming the consent decree is “inadequate.” The Native Americans say the states and federal agency are failing to protect the land, which gives the people the right to intervene to get the situation remedied.

June 12, 2000: The EPA begins dredging 1½ miles of the river.

Oct. 23, 2000: Western Mass Division of District Courts denies the Native American’s challenge to the consent decree.

June, 2003: GE completes cleanup of first half mile of the river.

November, 2003: GE issues a 70-page report blasting the EPA’s work on PCBs, saying the agency exaggerated the dangers of PCBs.

April 9, 2004: The EPA releases a draft report claiming PCB contamination on the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield poses “unacceptable health risks to people.”

April 14, 2004: The Housatonic River makes American Rivers’ list of the 10-most endangered waterways in the U.S.

Jan. 23, 2006: GE changes the consent decree and then objects to EPA’s objection to the changes.

Fall, 2006: GE completes cleanup of the most heavily polluted 1½ miles of the river, bringing the total river remediation to 2 miles. The cost of the scrubbing and renovations was $250 million and involved the excavation of 110,000 cubic yards of mud. More than 100 miles of contaminated river remain.

March, 2008: GE calls for the dredging of 10 miles of the river, which would include the clearing of river banks and the construction of a landfill to hold contaminated sediment.

September, 2008: EPA rejects the plan for not taking into account the “unique” nature of the river.

March 12, 2009: After rejecting GE’s first remediation proposal for being too aggressive, GE’s second plan for PCB cleanup says the contaminants should remain where they are.

Feb. 25, 2010: GE again invokes dispute resolution with the EPA to continue discussion of how to clean up the rest of the river.

September, 2015: The EPA, as required by the consent decree, issues an intended final decision about how GE should remedy the Housatonic River contamination.

October, 2015: GE invokes its right to dispute resolution over the EPA’s decision.

October, 2016: A state hearing board rejects GE’s objections to the EPA’S proposal.

Oct 26, 2016: The EPA’s $613 million plan for GE spans 13 years and includes the removal of contaminated soil and sediment and riverbed capping on 11 miles of river south of Pittsfield. A 125-mile stretch through Massachusetts and Connecticut will be monitored for natural recovery. GE is considering whether to appeal the decision.

SOURCE: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Publicly Available Documents on GE — Housatonic River.

Kristin Palpini

Author: Kristin Palpini

Editor of the Valley Advocate

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