EPA’s New Bedford settlement a lesson on industrial waste

Last week’s $366 million settlement with a company for its pollution of New Bedford Harbor, the largest in the three decades of the nation’s Superfund toxic cleanup program, is both something to be hailed and an unsettling symbol of the extent of prior decades of dumping in the name of industrial progress.

The money will come from AVX Corp., a South Carolina-based electronics components manufacturer. From the 1940s through the 1970s, AVX, then known as Aerovox, was the primary leaker of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the Acushnet River, which empties into New Bedford’s harbor. Two decades ago, AVX paid $66 million in cleanup costs but the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Commonwealth reserved the right to ask for more money if that did not prove sufficient. It did not.

A 2004 settlement netted $100 million from several companies, including AVX, to supplement the $15 million and $1.5 million the federal government and the state, respectively, had been spending per year for the cleanup. But New Bedford was still looking at decades of limited use of its harbor because of the pollution.


Now, the EPA says this latest settlement will slash the cleanup schedule from the original 40 years to seven. It says fishing may be possible in a decade.

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Local environmental groups, including the Coalition for Buzzards Bay and the Hands Across the River Coalition, are skeptical. This is the last chance for the government to collect from AVX, and harbor advocates say the EPA has consistently underestimated the amount of money needed to clean up the waters surrounding the city.

The concerns are understandable, but the EPA deserves the benefit of the doubt; under President Obama, it has flexed far more muscle than under the previous administration. If it can truly cut the cleanup to less than a decade, it would be a remarkable success, as PCBs in sediments are among the most pernicious of industrial toxins.

If people could once again fish or set lobster traps in New Bedford Harbor, they would provide hope for the remaining 30 or so Superfund sites in Massachusetts. But the cost and time should also be a sobering reminder that we must never let our waters be so polluted again.