A recent landmark Superfund settlement in New Bedford may not be enough to scrub all the probable human carcinogens from the toxic harbor, local environmental groups warn.
The federal government negotiated a $366 million cash settlement last week with the owners of a former electronics plant that leaked tons of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the Acushnet River and harbor. The money, US Environmental Protection Agency officials say, will provide the bulk of funding to clean the harbor within seven years.
While most of the reaction to the settlement has been positive, two local groups that have followed the saga of New England’s oldest and largest Superfund site are reviving longstanding complaints that the cleanup plan still leaves too high levels of PCBs in parts of the harbor.
And they say the settlement money the federal government will receive from AVX Corp. may be too little to clean such a massive site. They worry that lobsters and fish will be off limits to eat for years longer than the EPA is projecting.
“The EPA has consistently underestimated the cost of the cleanup: It is now seven times what they originally thought it would be,’’ said Mark Rasmussen, president of the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, a local environment group.
Rasmussen said he wants all the polluted sediment to be trucked off site, as has been the case until now, instead of being reburied in the harbor or placed in sealed containers along the shoreline, as is called for in the EPA’s cleanup plan. Because the EPA cannot go back to AVX for more money under the agreement, he asked, “What cost-saving measures are we facing down the road if the money runs out?”
The concern gets at a fundamental question at many toxic cleanup sites nationwide: How clean is clean enough?
Across the country, including the heavily PCB-polluted Housatonic River, such debates are taking place as money becomes scarce, cleanup costs balloon, and, in some cases, nature has covered over signs of the pollution. Along the Housatonic, some have argued that deeply cleaning parts of the river may harm the environment more than it helps.
In New Bedford, EPA officials say their goal is to make a harbor that has been off-limits to fishing since 1979 fishable again.
There are varying PCB cleanup targets in the harbor, depending on how close areas are to residences and recreational areas. In some of the most polluted places, the EPA says PCB levels will be driven even lower than the targets because of navigational dredging. Fishing, according to the EPA, will return 10 years after the seven-year cleanup is complete.
“Based on modeling . . . the harbor and surrounding areas will in the long term become open for safe seafood consumption,’’ the EPA said in a statement to the Globe. “This record settlement is an enormous accomplishment and a victory for the New Bedford region.”
Indeed, most public reaction to the negotiated settlement last week in New Bedford was positive: Without the AVX settlement, the EPA had said the cleanup would take more than 40 years because private money had run out and the cleanup was relying largely on $15 million a year from the Superfund and about $1.5 million annually from the state. The $366 million settlement will fund more than 90 percent of future cleanup costs, the EPA said, and if it is not enough, the EPA will go back to the Superfund and the state for money.
Edwin Rivera, president of Hands Across the River Coalition, a local advocacy group, says the harbor would get cleaner if New Bedford was a more affluent community. He said the EPA had originally said cleanup costs needed to be greater than the announced negotiated settlement.
“We are a city of immigrants, and they are using this [waterway] as a supermarket,” he said. “They use it to feed their kids, their pregnant wives. . . . It isn’t enough money to clean it right.”