Me/We and the EPA

By Mickey Friedman
May 12, 2017

I first met the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1990s. Glad to see them because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was doing a lousy job with GE and PCBs. The EPA had the power to turn things around and clean the Housatonic River.

Relationships are often tricky, and my relationship with the EPA has been up and down and up and down some more.

I’ve just spent months on behalf of the Housatonic River Initiative (HRI) writing an appeal of EPA’s final cleanup decision for The Rest of the River, that section of the Housatonic from Lenox to Connecticut. And then answering EPA’s attempt to disqualify our appeal on a series of technicalities.

Relationships with government agencies are a bit different than most relationships because the people at the top, the Regional Administrators, are political appointees. They come and go, or their priorities change with the tides. It’s not easy for the folks below to keep their jobs when the politics pivot. It’s especially difficult for scientists whose loyalties lie not with political parties but with a commitment to discover what’s happening with the river system, with the fish and frogs and ducks, to chart the consequences of PCB contamination for living things.

The Trump Administration chooses to appoint people who don’t believe in the mission of their governmental agencies. We’ve now got an office of Voodoo Environmentalism. EPA chief Scott Pruitt seeks to cut 31% or 2.4 billion dollars from EPA’s budget, firing 3,200 people.

This is particularly annoying and alarming. Those of us who have learned about toxic chemicals know the EPA needs more money not less. For those of you with kids, agencies like the EPA barely do enough as it is to keep them safe. PCBs cause cancer, and children are especially vulnerable. Mimicking human hormones, PCBs cause developmental and neurological deficits.

HRI has spent years pressuring EPA to take more seriously the threat to humans from airborne volatilized PCBS, bringing nationally respected researcher Dr. David Carpenter to the Berkshires many times to talk about the risks of breathing in PCBs. This is highly significant because currently cleanup decisions are based on PCB levels in river sediments and bank soils. Yet, as a 2017 study of New Bedford Harbor (NBH) shows “PCBs are mobilized from sediment to overlying water and air, contributing to human exposure via inhalation.” Therefore, and this is particularly relevant to those of us who live alongside or a few miles from the Housatonic, “It is important to understand the specific contribution of NBH to local levels of airborne PCBs as part of the risk-based decision making regarding remediation.” And the risks from inhalation of Housatonic PCBs was one of the issues we vigorously raised in our appeal.

Our main points were: “1) EPA allows GE to leave too many toxic PCBs in both riverbank soils and river sediments when there are demonstrably effective and ecologically sound ways to first, remove them from the environment, and then second, successfully restore the environment that has been remediated.

“EPA’s Rest of River Remedy unnecessarily allows these remaining PCBs at high levels to continue to put both human health and the health of wildlife and the environment at risk.

“2) EPA arbitrarily and without significant or sufficient scientific analysis, unnecessarily neglects CERCLA Section 9621(b)’s preference for alternative remedial technologies. Not only has Region 1 failed to mandate a Conceptual Site Model for analyzing the potential for bioremediation or other potential alternative remedial technologies, or mandating pilot tests for such technologies, its Final Remedy relies in part on the unproven Monitored Natural Recovery remedy for several sections of the River.

“Choosing not to mandate the treatment and significant reduction of PCB-contaminated sediment and bank soil results in the unnecessary landfilling of great amounts of contaminated material. This decision therefore perpetuates unnecessary risks to human health and the environment. Not only that, GE’s appeal of Region 1’s Remedy and its claim that mandating off-site disposal is “arbitrary and capricious” makes it quite possible that this unnecessary landfilling will ultimately be located in one or more of our home communities in South Berkshire County, Massachusetts.”

One of our main contentions is that EPA’s final decision contradicted the rigorous comprehensive work its scientists performed in their study of the River system, and EPA’s own cleanup and restoration of the first two miles of the River. Pressured by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and General Electric, and influenced by their coincidentally identical deceptive claims that a true cleanup would destroy the river, EPA chose politics over science.

The science is clear: many more PCBs can be removed from the River. The River can be restored. PCB-contaminated sediment and soil can be treated, not landfilled.

Our appeal is set to be heard by the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board. I hope it still exists. I’d like my/our day in EPA court.


Mickey Friedman’s Berkshire-based I Ching mysteries, “Danger” and “Folly”, as well as his non-fiction “A Red Family” are available on

“Me/We and the EPA” was first published in the May 4, 2017 edition of The Berkshire Record.

For more information:

HRI Brief Before The Environmental Appeals Board (Downloadable PDF)

On February 14, 2017 Region 1 issued a response seeking to disqualify HRI’s petition before the Environmental Appeals Board. You can download the PDF by using the link below:
HRI Response Brief_RCRA 16-02

HRI responded in some detail to the reasons – some about our failure to follow EPA process and some about technical differences – that Region 1 argued before EAB. You can download our Reply to Region 1 by clicking the link below:

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