Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle
October 23, 2005


By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- A foul ball from the baseball diamond at Allendale
Elementary School could land on a large, brown mound that looms over
the school yard from the other side of a chain-link fence.
The mound -- 38 feet high and covered in brown mulch -- is a toxic dump
that is home to thousands of cubic yards of PCB-contaminated waste
taken from the General Electric plant, the Housatonic River and
elsewhere. It will not grow any taller but will continue to stretch at
the edges; within the next few years, it will cover 5.6 acres.

The landfill was once a ravine that, over several decades, GE filled
with toxic waste and debris, according to records from the state
Department of Environmental Protection. When the decision to keep the
dump and add to it was made in 1998, it was little more than an
abstract concept. But the landfill -- called Hill 78 -- is growing day
by day and, with every new truckload of waste, it becomes more visible
and more unsettling.

Parents and teachers are growing increasingly concerned about the
well-being of children who attend Allendale and play on its fields.
Nearby residents are complaining that they see dust blowing off the
mound and toward their homes. Though the dump is part of a federally
approved cleanup, few seem comfortable with its proximity to where
people live and children learn.

Allendale has seen more than its share of controversy. It was built in
the 1950s on PCB-contaminated dirt fill that General Electric gave its
workers and the community for free. After the pollution was discovered
in 1991, most of the grounds were capped, despite the protests of
residents and parents. In 1999, the cap was removed, and GE dug up
41,000 cubic yards of polluted soil and rebuilt the baseball diamond,
soccer field and playground.

Last week, about 85 concerned parents and residents sat on folding
chairs in the gym of Allendale elementary. They watched an EPA
presentation explaining Hill 78 and two other sites that will become
toxic dumping grounds on the 250-acre GE plant. Though the EPA's
presenter, Sharon Hayes, made several attempts to explain that the
landfills will be safe, that the air and water around them will be
monitored to ensure no pollution escapes, no one in the audience
seemed convinced.

Dozens raised their hands and several shouted questions, asking,
"Would you let your children play here?" "Would you live next to the
dump?" They called for the government to test the air and the dust
inside the school to see whether it is contaminated, but the EPA and
state Department of Environmental Protection representatives refused,
saying it was unnecessary.

When one audience member asked who tests the air and water around the
landfill now, Hayes said it is GE's responsibility. The crowd groaned.

Denice Yon, the mother of a 7-year-old Allendale pupil, seemed to sum
up how many felt, saying, "It's not infallible, and our children play
here. That's our concern."

EPA says site is safe

The EPA has been a constant presence in Pittsfield for the past 10
years, wrestling with GE over the PCB pollution that is the longest-
lived legacy of the once-booming, but now quiet, transformer plant.

GE used PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, for decades in the giant
electrical transformers it manufactured. The chemical was banned in
1977, however, and is suspected of causing cancer in people and of
contributing to developmental disabilities suxch as dyslexia and
attention deficit disorder in children.

In a telephone interview, Dean Tagliaferro, the EPA's project manager
for the Pittsfield cleanup, said he has heard the concerns from
parents, residents and environmentalists.

"I can understand that they are concerned. They see waste being
consolidated near a school. I think their concerns are legitimate and
I think the action EPA is taking -- and we will look to see if we need
to take additional actions -- are protective of the area and of human

GE spokesman Peter O'Toole said "nothing has changed in terms of our
work at Hill 78." The company is monitored by both the EPA and the
state Department of Environmental Protection, he said, and will go on
with the landfilling as part of the overall cleanup.

Because Hill 78 was a dumping ground long before the cleanup agreement
was created in 1998, it was never formally designed to be a permanent
landfill, so there is no protective liner underneath it. That means
the pollution could seep into the groundwater or migrate underground,
either toward the Housatonic River or toward Allendale. Unless GE and
EPA want to dig up the entire site, there will be no liner.

The EPA says the natural flow of the groundwater is away from the
school and the pollution should be contained after a cap of manmade
material, clay, soil and grass is placed on top. And it says the water
will be monitored; if it shows signs of contamination in the future,
action can be taken to deal with it before the pollution spreads.

"The key concern that I would have would be not having a liner," said
Jim Warren of North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an
environmental group that successfully fought for the cleanup of a PCB
dump in North Carolina (see related story, this page). "That is just
about unconscionable in this day and age."

Nearby, another toxic dump is being built, this one called Building
71. It will have a liner on the bottom to keep pollution in place.
While Hill 78 can receive debris containing PCBs in concentrations no
greater than 50 parts per million, there will be no limit on the
pollution that goes into Building 71.

And another landfill could be built near New York Avenue and Merrill
Road. It, too, would have a liner and a cap and be eligible to hold
material with PCBs greater than 50 parts per million.

For the two new landfills, GE is digging a broad, shallow hole and
lining it with a plastic material that is about 15 times as thick as
the plastic sheets one typically buys at the hardware store. Once that
liner is in place, the toxic waste will be piled on top of it and
eventually covered with another layer of manmade material, then clay,
dirt and grass, so the waste will be encapsulated.

Key bargaining point

When representatives from the EPA, GE, Pittsfield and others
negotiated the deal in 1998 to clean the plant, the Housatonic River
and properties throughout the city, GE worked to keep the Hill 78
landfill where it was and add to it.

The city opposed the on-site landfills, and the City Council voted to
protest them. But the dumps survived in the final compromise, which
took the form of a consent decree that was finalized in October 2000.

Thomas E. Hickey Jr., a former City Council president who was at the
negotiating table during those talks, is now the executive director of
the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority that is working to
redevelop more than 50 acres of the GE plant.

"The city of Pittsfield, the City Council and the mayor went on record
against it," Hickey said of the landfill. "We did not want to have an
on-site consolidation area. EPA came back with plans that would make
it safe and acceptable, and it became a key bargaining point in
getting the settlement."

O'Toole, the GE spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment on
why the company wanted the landfills, but environmentalists say the
company's motive appears to be money. It is expensive to dig up
contaminated debris and haul it by train or truck to an acceptable
site. By taking one of the most polluted spots on its plant and
turning it into a permanent dump, GE was killing two birds with one
stone: Not only could it leave the pollution in place, but it could
take building debris from its plant and polluted sediment from the
Housatonic and dump it in Pittsfield.

Though the city government had opposed the on-site dumps, the City
Council and former Mayor Gerald S. Doyle Jr. put those concerns aside
when it signed the consent decree that included them.

Since the agreement was finalized, thousands of tons of PCBs have been
removed from the Housatonic, the plant and backyards and businesses
around Pittsfield, with the EPA and GE sharing most of the costs. The
total price tag of the cleanup mandated by the decree has been
estimated at $700 million.

The Housatonic River Initiative, an environmentalist group, opposed
the consent decree, partly because of the provisions allowing the
landfills. Tim Gray, HRI's executive director, said he still hopes the
agreement can be amended someday to remove Hill 78.

"It was a terrible mistake to put more PCBs on top of the worst toxic
place on the plant site," Gray said. His group urged the EPA to treat
the PCBs rather than landfill them. "That would have been the best
solution, to get rid of them once and for all. Our backup position was
that the city of Pittsfield leaders and environmentalists would get
together and find a better place to put them that's not next to the

Valerie Andersen, a substitute teacher who sometimes works at
Allendale, said she has been in the playground and seen dust blowing
off the landfill and toward the children. While the EPA says it is
clean soil, she is not reassured.

To Andersen, it's not much of a cleanup if the end result will be
pollution next to a playground.

"That's no cleanup, if you ask me," she said. "Taking dirt from one
place and dumping it in another place is not a cleanup -- it's a

Jack Dew can be reached at or at (413)