If you’ve been starved for decades and someone puts a feast in front of you, you eat it, right? But what if it was just enough to feed you for a little while, and the price of eating it was that you’d never get another morsel after that? Or what if the food was rotten? Still a good deal or do you hold out a bit longer to make sure you get enough food for the rest of your life, and that of your children and grandchildren?
In many ways, that’s the decision facing New Bedford right now as the city and area residents evaluate the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Final Settlement with AVX Corporation for funds to clean up toxic PCBs in New Bedford Harbor. Many elected officials praised the deal when announced as a veritable feast of corporate funding in a time of tight government budgets. They ask us to eat today, ignoring both the quality of the meal offered and what happens when the funding feast runs out.
It’s a false choice for our community and one that we must reject.
The EPA’s New Bedford Harbor PCB cleanup plan is unacceptable and getting worse because of cost-saving amendments pursued by the agency. In some parts of the harbor, EPA is planning to leave behind 50 times more toxic pollution than that considered safe for people and fish. When compared against PCB contaminated sites across the country, it becomes clear that New Bedford Harbor is getting one of the worst Superfund cleanups of its kind in America.
And what toxic PCBs the EPA isn’t planning to leave in the mud, it intends to manage through a mix of offsite disposal, shoreside bulkheading, or burial in Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cells. The agency has already begun designing the first set of CAD cells just north of Route 6 and has been evaluating another behind Riverside Park. These CAD cells are not sealed containers as their technical-sounding name suggests. They are simply holes dug in the harbor bottom with PCBs dumped in them and sand spread on top. CAD cells are cost-saving measures and far inferior to the primarily offsite disposal employed by EPA today. Their use in New Bedford Harbor will increase human exposure to PCBs during construction and leave a toxic legacy in our community forever.
This is the “cleanup strategy” that EPA sought to fund when it sat down with AVX. This is what we get for the $366 million negotiated — up to 50 times the pollution left in other communities, no safe fish to eat, and harbor banks and bottom laced with buried dumps of PCBs.
The EPA approach also has another fatal flaw: its estimation of how much of the harbor bottom needs to be dredged to rid it of PCBs is based on the industrial riverfront of the mid-1980s. That was a very different New Bedford Harbor north of Coggeshall Street: a waterway without shoreside parks and public open spaces, without rowing clubs, and without the riverwalk trails and saltmarsh boardwalks presently in design. And its shores did not host newly-renovated residential lofts and retirement facilities in those former riverfront mills. But that is the waterfront vision our community is actively creating today. The presence of all of these people living on and enjoying their Harbor dramatically changes the cost and type of cleanup EPA must do in the upper harbor as residential areas must be cleaned up 10 to 20 times better than industrial sites. EPA has admitted that the scale of this change is not reflected in the $366 million deal they agreed to with AVX.
Nearly all the officials quoted at the October announcement of the AVX settlement expressed their pleasure that the Harbor will ‘finally be cleaned’ and ‘people will fish again’. Since that time as the details of EPA’s backroom deal with AVX have come out, more and more people are waking up to the fact that neither of these things will result from the settlement.
In the end, the most harmful element of the AVX settlement is the agreement’s lack of a ‘reopener’ clause. There’s nothing wrong with the EPA making a deal with AVX to pay another $366 million to move our cleanup forward. The problem is that in exchange, AVX convinced EPA to let them off the hook forever. So when public demand forces EPA to improve its cleanup plan to take into account the new public uses of our harbor and to give New Bedford the level of cleanup granted other communities across America, there will be nowhere to go for more funding.
As of today, nearly 2,000 people have signed on to join the Buzzards Bay Coalition in our opposition to the lack of a Reopener Clause in EPA’s proposed settlement with AVX. Comments on the settlement will be accepted by the US Department of Justice until Dec. 17. Get involved. This won’t be the last battle in the fight to clean up New Bedford Harbor, but it will define all those that follow.
Mark Rasmussen is president of the Buzzards Bay Coalition.