River Advocates Say PCBs Going into Water via Stormwater Runoff
Environmental advocates are questioning why the federal government is going to allow General Electric Co. to continue to discharge polluted water into the Housatonic River and possibly undermine the massive cleanup already under way.
The Housatonic River Initiative has long protested that the PCB cleanup spelled out in a settlement agreement will leave the Housatonic vulnerable because the GE plant and areas around the city will still be harboring thousands of tons of the toxic chemical.
Now the HRI says its fear are coming true, pointing to a federal permit that, if issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would allow stormwater drains on the GE plant site to continue to direct contaminated water to the Housatonic.
"Any PCBs that are getting into the river are going to lead to trouble down the line," said HRI executive director Tim Gray. "Does it make sense that -- while the EPA, the taxpayers and GE are spending all this money to clean up the river -- there are sources of PCBs going back into the river?"
The EPA has issued GE a draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permit that governs 17 stormwater outfalls that discharge into the Housatonic, two that discharge into Silver Lake and seven into Unkamet Brook.
Previous tests of the water that flows through this system of drains and pipes have shown that small quantities of PCBs -- always less than 1 part of PCBs for every billion parts of water, a minuscule amount by federal standards -- have followed this path to the river.
Though the amounts of pollution are small, they are in some instances flowing into a half mile of river that GE finished dredging in 2002. Now, samples taken by the EPA show that the clean fill used to re-create the riverbed has low concentrations of PCBs where there should be none at all.
Dean Tagliaferro, the EPA's team leader for the Housatonic cleanup, said that 10 sediment samples from the cleaned half mile yielded an average PCB level of 0.5 parts per million. Of the 10 tests, the highest single concentration was 1.9 parts per million.
Tagliaferro said he suspects that the pollution in the half mile is the result of sediment with low levels of PCBs migrating downstream, and not the consequence of water being discharged into the river.
The removal of PCBs from the Housatonic and the GE plant is governed by a consent decree finalized in 2000. That settlement requires GE to conduct a round of extensive testing in the half mile in 2007. If that shows fresh pollution, it is possible that the EPA could seek another cleanup.
The NPDES permit would require GE to occasionally sample the water draining into the river and to take several steps to reduce the likelihood that pollution would move from the plant to the Housatonic. It would have to remove debris from manholes and catch basins, clean and inspect the pipes and improve the oil and water separators that treat the water before it hits the river. It also would have to maintain the extensive water treatment system being used on some parts of the 250-acre property.
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