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EPA Responds To Pittsfield, MA City Council Call After Toxicity Spike


After rising toxicity rates in Pittsfield, Massachusetts led municipal leaders to ask for answers, a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency is responding.

At its October 9th meeting, the Pittsfield city council was up in arms over a September report on two toxic waste dumps on the former campus of General Electric in the heart of the Berkshires’ largest community. It demanded greater participation from state and federal agencies dedicated to the long-term cleanup of pollution in the Housatonic River.

“For Pittsfield, for the residents who have to look at these hills and we have lots of questions — and there’s questions like that — ‘it’s in our drinking water? You kidding me?’ — people hear this, and this is what they think," said Councilor Melissa Mazzeo. "I think it’s important that we have them come again, and I understand it’s hard getting everyone in a room but, that is what their job is to do, to answer questions.”

“First of all, we’re very involved," said Jim Murphy, the team leader for government relations and community involvement at the EPA regional office in Boston. “We publically announce our meetings, we cover all of these topics at the meetings that we organize on a quarterly basis. And the city is invited to attend those meetings. Occasionally there is a city staff person there or even more than occasionally, but I don’t think we’ve seen any council people.”

Murphy says the EPA has been working with both the city of Pittsfield and community groups within the city for years, and has come to expect these kind of calls on a regular basis when there is a turnover in leadership.

“We kind of expect to do — to kind of go through the whole story again once in a while, so this is not unusual,” he told WAMC.

Murphy says it’s important not to take the rising toxicity found in the agency’s September report out of context.

“There’s been a concern raised about some of the groundwater concentrations, and to us — and we’ve been looking at the data from these areas for well over 10 years,” he said.

While the EPA signed a consent decree with GE in 2001, Murphy says the company had already begun cleaning up chemicals it had dumped into Housatonic River for decades in the mid-90s. The results of those early efforts ended up in the first of two landfills on the former GE campus.

"Most of the material that was excavated during GE’s initial cleanup, the first two miles of the river, the waste was brought to that on-site landfill,” explained Murphy.

Later, a second, more modern landfill was built alongside it. Two kinds of monitoring wells surround the pair.

“One is more just focused on the concentrations in the bigger area of groundwater," said Murphy, "and the other ones are focused on providing information on the landfills itself, whether they’re leaching out and whether the cap is effective.”

Groundwater refers to water below the surface of the earth, and is not the same water provided to city residents. As it stands, the EPA says the rise in levels won’t affect the Housatonic River, air quality, or drinking water. Murphy says nothing about the testing threatens, for example, the 312 students at the nearby Allendale Elementary School.

“Sixteen wells in this area were sampled in the spring, and there were zero exceedances of the standard,” he told WAMC.

Murphy said that the EPA has some expectations of the seasonal variation in testing.

“The spring data is more consistent with the data from last spring," he said. "When we get this data from this next sampling event, the fall sampling event, we’re going to expect a number of the wells to go up a little bit higher, and then they’ll be down a little bit lower in the spring. Or it could be vice versa, depending on where these wells are.”

Nothing about the readings requires action from GE at this time according to the EPA. The next round of sampling will occur in late October or early November.

The next public EPA meeting is set for October 24th at the Lenox Library, where Berkshire residents can hear a presentation from the agency’s site specific project manager and ask questions.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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