The pollution of the Hoosic River and the continuing battle to clean it up

Dorothy Reinke, a Williamstown resident since the 1920s, remembers the hot summer days as a teenager sitting by the Hoosic River that runs through North Adams and Williamstown, watching the river’s color alternate from blue to green to pink to brown.

The rainbow of colors. Reinke witnessed were the visible indicators of harmful chemicals used by printing factories and paper mills. As the years go by for the Hoosic, its enemies have come in more discreet forms. The most deadly pollutant in the river is called Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) and was dumped en mass into the Hoosic from the ’50s to the late ’70s by Sprague Electric Company.

When Sprague could no longer legally pollute the river due to the passage of a federal law that prohibited the use of PCBs, they stored the hazardous wastes underground. As cleanup of these storage sites nears completion in North Adams and the Hoosic River regains its purity, the effects of PCBs and other pollutants still plague the 70-mile tributary of the Hudson River. The tributary has its headwaters in Lanesboro, Mass. and just north of Stamford, Vt. and meanders through southwestern Vermont before joining the Hudson in Amsterdam, N.Y. (approximately 15 miles north of Albany).

The history of PCBs

PCBs are a class of chlorinated organic compounds manufactured for use as additives in transformer and hydraulic fluids. Lauren Stevens, co-founder of the Hoosic River Watershed Association (HooRWA), a non-profit environmental organization founded in 1986 to protect the Hoosic and the surrounding environment, said PCBs were also sprayed on parking lots to keep dust down, eventually leaking into rivers. They were first introduced to the industrial world in the 1920s and were manufactured until the late 1970s. During the 40 years they were produced, more than 700,000 tons of PCBs were manufactured in North America.

After use, PCBs were disposed of in lakes, rivers, oceans and standard landfills, where they clung to sediment. A 1971 study by a Swedish scientist found PCBs in the fatty tissue of fish, alerting scientists to the negative environmental impact of the compound. In 1979 the dumping of PCBs was prohibited by the federal Substance Control Act. Reinke remembers the widespread dumping of PCBs in the Berkshires: “Everyone just assumed [PCBs] would dissipate and it turned out they didn’t.”

After the passage of the law that outlawed PCBs, companies like Sprague that had been using and dumping tons of PCBs for years were left with the task of storing the toxic waste underground in drums. The barrels eventually corroded and leaked hazardous waste into the soil and, in Sprague Electric’s case, the Hoosic River.

The problem with PCBs

The Sierra Club, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the National Toxicology Program have classified PCBs as possible human carcinogens. Some critics, like Williams professor of chemistry John Thoman, agree with such a classification: “Do these things cause cancer? Yeah, probably.”

Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, reports that chronic exposure to PCBs has been proven to cause skin rashes, nausea, headaches and fatigue in humans. Dennis Regan of the Housatonic Valley Association reports that men working on the General Electric PCB cleanup on the Housatonic River in Pittsfield have not been allowed to eat lunch onsite due to an unexplained GE request.

According to Lauren Stevens of the Hoosic River Watershed Association, when PCBs get into a river, they cling to sediment and then are absorbed into the tissue of organisms such as plants or larvae. Fish then consume those organisms and “bioaccumulate” the toxins in their fatty tissue. When humans eat such a fish, they get a highly concentrated dose of PCBs. Sam Smith, a Williamstown farmer whose land is on the banks of the Hoosic, said, “I certainly wouldn’t eat any fish that came out of the river.”

According to Catherine G. Wanat, project manager with the state Department of Environmental Protection, levels of PCBs have ranged from 1,990 parts per million (ppm) to 10,300 ppm at the Brown Street plant in North Adams. According to the EPA, anything greater than 2-ppm PCBs in fish is “unacceptable” for human consumption.

Sprague electric

Former Sprague Electric plants and waste sights have been the focus of Hoosic cleanup, since the company was the largest producer of waste along the Hoosic for over three decades. “Not only did Sprague leave 3000 unemployed in North Adams,” Stevens said of the electric parts manufacturer’s impact on the community since it moved out in the mid-80s, “but they also left a little token of their presence” in the form of toxic waste.

After years of denial from Sprague, HooRWA finally drew the attention of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in a 1989 finding of PCBs in Hoosic trout. Abby Kingman of the State Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup for the EPA said that one year after the initial PCB findings, Sprague agreed to take full responsibility for the cleanup of waste sites. The sites include a landfill dubbed the “Fairgrounds Fill” and the former Sprague Plant from 1973-1980 on Brown Street only 25 yards from the river. The Brown Street storage is at the current site of Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art.

Today, after ten years of waste removal, the American Annuity Group of Cincinnati has taken ownership of the former Sprague properties in North Adams and has, according to Kingman, “almost finished the cleanup.” Stevens said, “American Annuity carted up the PCBs from one of the parking lots and sent it to some pit in Buffalo.” Three years ago at the Brown Street site, which is the most threatening to the Hoosic due to its proximity, 1500 barrels of hazardous waste were removed. Just two years ago, 458 more drums were uncovered near the Boston and Maine railroad tracks, less than 100 yards from the river.

Is there a problem?

When asked about the amount of PCBs that have contaminated the Hoosic over the years, Thoman replied, “That was not a small amount of PCBs – that was a huge amount.” Studies published by the EPA on the Hoosic watershed in 1999 report that none of the tributary streams are suitable for consuming fish and only 20 percent are suitable for swimming and boating.

Many Williamstown locals are optimistic about the cleanup in North Adams. According to Stevens, the Hoosic is a fast-flowing, “flashy” river in which silt does not rest; therefore there are no places to “hold PCBs.” “The current thought is that all of the PCB contaminated sites have been cleared up and if everything goes through…we will be the first river in the Northeast to have all of our PCBs cleaned.”

While the site cleanup may be completed, the consequences of PCB spills linger. An Aug. 27, 1999 article in The Berkshire Eagle mentioned the high levels of PCBs in ducks collected by the EPA along the Housatonic River, which flows through Pittsfield, Mass. and on through Connecticut to the Long Island Sound. A more recent report tracked these contaminated birds as far south as Maryland. The levels, according to the article, were “hundreds of times higher than the government considers safe to eat.”

Stevens said the Hoosic is one of the few rivers in Massachusetts that has a “sustainable number of wild trout and an abundance of brown trout.” Reggie Galvin, a local fly-fisherman and fly shop owner in nearby Pownal, Vt., said he has fished the rivers for more than six decades and that the “number of fish since 1948 have steadily grown.” This increase in the quantity of fish in the Hoosic River over the years can be attributed to the decrease in consumption of fish from the Hoosic. According to Galvin, it is common knowledge among local fisherman that the EPA has placed “limits” on rainbow and brown trout consumption out of the Hoosic.

more than just PCBs

Other locals, like Williams’ Hank Art, Chair of Environmental Studies and professor of biology, have found more at fault with the water quality of the Hoosic. “Certainly, it could be better,” he said. Art said that the North Branch of the Hoosic near Clarksburg contains very high levels of fecal chloroform, an “indicator of septic or livestock manure in contaminated water.”

There are issues involving the Cheshire Reservoir, which was created when the Hoosic was dammed in the 1880s to create a source of power for the paper mills. Art said that the reservoir is “overgrown” with aquatic weeds and needs cleaning while the Cheshire damn needs repairs, but the current owner, “will have nothing of it.” Art says there is a group of 100 Lanesboro and Cheshire citizens looking into purchasing the reservoir in order to clean it up and “save the fish.” Even the government has offered to buy the reservoir, putting some of the payment in an escrow account for damn repairs, but Shae continues to refuse to sell or address the reservoir’s environmental problems.

Art suggests another fairly recent tragedy, less publicized than PCB fight, but no less important. In 1990 there was an ammonia leak from the Williams College ice rink cooling system into the Green River, a tributary to the Hoosic, that killed all of the fish in the Green and most likely affected the Hoosic.

Art said that the EPA is monitoring an old oil tank site off of Cole Avenue in Williamstown that has leaked oil onto the ground surface and continues to contaminate the Hoosic. The oil has been slowly escaping into the river, Art said, for 12 years.

There are still problems facing the Hoosic, Art said, from scattered, rusting, auto bodies and rusting car parts to a 1950s cement flood control project. The latter project caused thermal pollution from North Adams through Williamstown, heating up severely in the summers to “the point that it is detrimental to the trout,” since hot water temperatures “do not provide enough oxygen for the fish.”

David Dethier, professor of geosciences at Williams, described the continuing problems with the Hoosic by saying, “Overall, the Hoosic is much better than it has been in the past, but in detail you still don’t want to eat the fish…or fall entirely in yet.” There is still more work to be done before the Hoosic River is healthy again.

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