NEW BEDFORD — A long-departed manufacturing company will pay $366 million to clean the PCB-laden harbor here, the largest cash settlement for a single site in the history of the federal Superfund program, government officials announced Wednesday.
The payment by South Carolina-based AVX Corp., whose predecessor, Aerovox Corp., operated an electrical component plant, will mean the harbor could be clean within seven years — a dramatically shorter timeline than the 40 years or more federal officials once predicted.
The cleanup will reverse decades of embarrassment for the fabled fishing city: Although New Bedford is one of the nation’s top fishing ports, eating even a single fish from its harbor has been prohibited because the water is considered so poisoned with polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable human carcinogen.
“This is a very big deal,” said New Bedford’s mayor, Jon Mitchell. “This is going to allow us to take full advantage of our harbor.”
Residents along the harbor Wednesday celebrated the news, saying they hope it makes the southeastern Massachusetts city more attractive to tourists. But one environmental watchdog said he wanted to make sure the harbor really got clean.
Pollution of New Bedford Harbor began decades ago. By the mid-1900s, the once-pristine harbor had been transformed into an 18,000-acre dumping ground for PCBs. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, several electronic manufacturers, including Aerovox, dumped tons of the chemicals, which settled deep in the harbor’s sediment.
AVX, in a press release, said the company that polluted the harbor was a predecessor, and “AVX itself never produced this type of capacitor, nor does it so today.” A capacitor is an electronic component that stores energy.
The settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, was unexpected because it was widely believed that private money had dried up to clean the harbor. By 2004, some $100 million that federal officials had negotiated from several companies, including AVX, in compensation for polluting the harbor was gone. Since then, the cleanup has largely relied on federal funding of about $15 million a year and state funding of $1.5 million a year.
But the federal government was able to go back to AVX, considered the harbor’s primary polluter. A legal clause in an earlier settlement allowed federal regulators to return to the company if more contamination was found, or if the EPA had to pay more for the cleanup than originally thought. But the EPA cannot seek further money from AVX.
“With this settlement, we are making good on our pledge to the citizens of New Bedford to help clean their harbor,” said Curt Spalding, the regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office.
By the time PCBs were federally banned in the 1970s, the fate of New Bedford’s harbor and the adjacent Acushnet River estuary was sealed: In 1983, it was declared a federal Superfund site, one of the nation’s most polluted locations. It has recorded some of the highest PCB levels in the nation, and fishing and lobstering have been banned since 1979.
It has also been the site of great legal precedent and controversy. It was the first case in the nation in which federal lawyers sought money not only to clean up pollution but to offset the harm done to plants and animals. Fierce fights erupted over how to clean the harbor’s sediment, with widespread public opposition resulting in the abandoning of plans for an incinerator that would have burned the polluted material.
The most polluted material was removed in the 1990s. Now, EPA is working to dredge what remains, move some of it offsite, safely bury some of it in the harbor, and put the remainder in sealed facilities that would extend the shoreline.
On the rain-soaked streets of New Bedford on Wednesday, residents praised the settlement and expressed hope the harbor really would be cleaned as swiftly as federal authorities predicted.
“This is a beautiful city, and if they can clean up the harbor, that’s even better.’’ said lifelong New Bedford resident Michelle Demers. “We have a lot to offer down here in New Bedford.’’
But Mark Rasmussen, president of the environmental advocacy group Coalition for Buzzards Bay, said while it was an important moment for the city, he wanted more information about what will be done with the money — and whether $366 million is sufficient to reverse what decades of pollution wrought.
“No information is provided about the AVX settlement today that gives us any confidence that the cleanup will be done properly,” Rasmussen said. “There is no detail provided as to what the $366 million actually pays for. . . . I’m not confident that $366 million is enough.”
The Department of Justice negotiated the settlement on behalf of the EPA, and the Massachusetts attorney general’s office negotiated on behalf of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.