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Amid ongoing controversy around Housatonic cleanup plan, EPA holds tour of proposed landfill site in Lee

Dean Taliaferro of the EPA, speaking with reporters at the site of the proposed landfill in Lee, Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
Dean Tagliaferro of the EPA, speaking with reporters at the site of the proposed landfill in Lee, Massachusetts.

The Environmental Protection Agency held a press tour this week for the site of a controversial landfill in Lee, Massachusetts that will hold toxic materials dredged from the Housatonic River.

The site of the proposed upland disposal facility is parcel of land just west of the sprawling October Mountain State Forest — a former gravel pit that lies under Eversource-owned powerlines below Woods Pond and next to the village of Lenoxdale.

“This is so close to Woods Pond, you can hydraulically dredge or hydraulically pump or convey through pipes, from the pond, straight up this utility corridor, power lines, to this area up here or a support area where GE is going to dewater it, so there's no trucks, no transportation on city roads, rail line, out of state, anywhere," Dean Tagliaferro told reporters. "So that is one of the key ones- It's in close proximity to the most amount of waste.”

Tagliaferro is the EPA project manager for the UDF.

“To construct the UDF, GE will have to do a lot of what's called cutting and filling," he explained. "They have to cut it to make it flat on the bottom, so that'll generate a lot of material. If it's too low for the proposed grade, they'll have to fill. So, it's a combination of digging out the high spots and filling in the low spots.”

A view of the landscape surrounding the proposed landfill site in Lee, Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
A view of some of the landscape surrounding the proposed landfill site in Lee, Massachusetts.

The agency brokered a cleanup deal between General Electric – which dumped PCBs into the Housatonic from a Pittsfield facility throughout the 20th century – and communities along the river that it unveiled in 2020. The plan has infuriated some Berkshire County residents, especially in Lee, who say the proposed landfill is a public safety risk, including to aquifers below the community.

“I believe the permit requires GE to put the bottom of the landfill a minimum of 15 feet above the seasonally high groundwater table," said Tagliaferro. "So that's what a lot of the investigation work was done to, and there’s 12 wells, plus or minus a few, that have been monitored for over a year and a half. That data will be used with some calculations, and GE did propose the seasonally high groundwater table in the recent report. EPA has to review and either concur or modify, and then GE can proceed with the design to be at least 15 feet above that.”

As for the lining of the landfill, Tagliaferro said that while the original permit called for just two layers, GE returned with a proposed five.

“Two of them are called HDP, high density polyethylene, and there's a certain thickness," he said. "It'll be in mils, which is not a millionth of an inch, it's thousandth of an inch. And so it's a little tricky, and I'd have to look what dimension it is. So, they have two of those. And then GE proposed two, it's called the geocomposite layer, a clay layer, clay mats sometimes. So, it's a manufactured clay layer that's fairly thin. So, they proposed two of those. And at the very bottom, I believe, is one foot of clay, actual clay, so, not manufactured.”

The plan also accounts for any materials that percolate through the solid waste and leach out of the UDF.

“On top of those five layers, which is an HDPE one, will have perforated pipes on top of them, and that's what's going to collect the leachate and the leachate will drain to a leachate collection facility," said Tagliaferro. "The secondary, what we call the secondary HDPE liner, will also have perforated pipes on top of it, so if something were to get down to that layer, that will also be collected and fed into the collection tank.”

Three options exist for the leachate.

“That can be treated on site which GE has not proposed yet they could build a treatment plant like they have in Pittsfield and discharge it to the river," Tagliaferro continued. "With EPA approval, they could use tanker trucks and tanker off site to out of state for treatment and disposal. Or they have the option of using tanker trucks and bringing it to GE’s facility in Pittsfield.”

This parcel of land in the shadow of October Mountain State Forest will house upwards of 1.3 million cubic yards of PCB contaminated waste from the Housatonic River.
Josh Landes
This parcel of land in the shadow of October Mountain State Forest will house upwards of 1.3 million cubic yards of PCB contaminated waste from the Housatonic River.

Tagliaferro got his degree in chemical engineering at Tufts University and his master’s in environmental engineering at UMASS Lowell. He’s worked Superfund sites since 1987, including the work done over 20 years ago to remediate the GE campus in Pittsfield from which the contaminants in the Housatonic emerged. Taliaferro responded to criticism that the EPA’s plan does not require GE to entirely remove PCB tainted materials from the Housatonic.

“When EPA evaluates it, how much you remove of hazardous waste is not a metric," he said. "The metric is risk, you want to eliminate the risk. And the risk can certainly be handled. In our view, it's a balance of risk and a lot of other factors. But the goal is to reduce the risk. So, for example, in the floodplain, you could have PCBs down 10, 12 feet. It makes absolutely no sense to dig 12 feet of a floodplain when your only exposure is in the top foot. So, we focus on risk.”

Tagliaferro said there are two main risks to human health posed by the polluted Housatonic.

“Direct contact in the floodplain, which is sort of by definition on the surface, and at most three feet in high use areas," he told reporters. "The other health risk to humans – I'm not talking about ecological – is ingestion of fish. So, if you can break the connection between deep, really deep contaminated sediment and surficial contaminated sediment, then you then you've greatly reduced the risk. That's the goal. And you want to make the river so that you're remove enough that if you cap at that the cap will stay in place and minimize any release to back into the river.”

The landfill would have its groundwater tested every six months alongside air testing at the site.

“There's low-level PCBs, which do volatilize if it's very warm out," said Tagliaferro. "These concentrations are extremely low. We're sitting in the floodplain right now, people walk in the floodplain, they're not getting zapped. To have adverse health effects from PCBs at these levels, you need to have prolonged exposure over many, many years. So certainly, a one-time thing would not be an issue. I've walked on all the floodplains, I’ve walked on the GE plant, I've been there when they've been consolidating the high-level waste, I've never worn a respirator, never done anything. It's- to me it's a very extremely low to negligent effect anyone's health.”

Tagliaferro stressed that the EPA does not consider the materials it plans to remove from the Housatonic into the landfill to be a danger to the community.

“It's already in the water," he said. "It's in the river. That's why we're cleaning it up. I wish people had as much concern about the PCBs in the river and Woods Pond as they do the microscopic amount that might leach out of the material that's going to be placed in the landfill.”

After the tour, WAMC immediately visited the one of the closest residences to the proposed landfill site, just down Willow Hill Road.

Lee, Massachusetts, resident Raymond Turner outside his home on Willow Hill Road, adjacent to the future landfill site.
Josh Landes
Lee, Massachusetts, resident Raymond Turner outside his home on Willow Hill Road, adjacent to the future landfill site.

“I'm scared, I’m afraid of what could happen to me," said Raymond Turner. "I mean, it's really sad. But- I don't know, maybe even move out of the area. It's really bad- Who would want anything like that? Nobody in the town of Lee wants it. So why can't they overrule it?”

Turner has lived in Lee for most of his life and loves it.

“God's country," he told WAMC. "We have deer that run in a backyard, we have bears that come through, we have wild turkey, we have deer. It's gorgeous.”

Turner says he hasn’t been approached by any governmental representatives about the plan to install the landfill effectively across the street from the apartment he rents.

“It's like an infringement on your life benefits and your loyalty to this country," Turner said. "I mean, who would want a waste dump anywheres near them? It just makes no sense at all. I wish they would just not have it at all. Just do away with it. Figure out a different solution.”

Turner was gobsmacked at the idea that he will soon be living near upwards of 1.3 million cubic yards of contaminated waste.

“Who wants any toxic dump in your backyard? Makes no sense at all," he told WAMC. "I mean, you worry about what it's going to do to you. Am I going to get cancer from it? What kind of air is it going to be when I breathe? I mean, I'm outdoors a lot at this place. I go walking every day on this road. It's sad. Who would want anything like that in the area?”

After multiple legal challenges to the landfill failed in court, the EPA estimates construction will begin in late 2024 or early 2025.

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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