Silence shrouds EPA plans for Upper Harbor CAD Cell

The CAD cell, an alternative to sending contaminated sediments off-site, would hold some of the most contaminated sediment in the harbor, according to EPA documents obtained by the Buzzards Bay Coalition through a Freedom of Information Act request that were given to The Standard-Times.

The documents include emails dating as far back as 2006 between EPA and Army Corps of Engineers officials and a 2011 Army Corps of Engineers assessment detailing the dimensions of an Upper Harbor CAD cell that Buzzards Bay Coalition President Mark Rasmussen contended is “just short of an actual contract to build it.”

Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) Cells are specially engineered holes to contain contaminated sediment, which have been opposed by local environmental groups who question their safety. So far, the EPA has almost exclusively publicly discussed using the technology for Superfund cleanup in the Lower Harbor. These documents outline internal planning for an Upper Harbor CAD cell by the EPA.

When asked about the documents, EPA Region 1 Administrator Curt Spalding said “There is no planning under way now for an Upper Harbor CAD cell at all.” But he said the EPA will officially consider the idea in July when it plans to reopen the Record of Decision regarding harbor cleanup.

“At that time, we would talk about different ways to remedy the harbor,” he said. “There has been no decision made whether an Upper Harbor CAD cell would be part of that discussion.”


CAD cells were first proposed in public at a meeting on Oct. 30, 2008, as a way to clean the cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that currently render the harbor unusable for recreation and fishing. During the meeting, the EPA presented CAD cells as a way to drastically accelerate the harbor cleanup using less money than previously planned.

An EPA slideshow at that meeting showed possible locations for CAD cells with bright yellow boxes. One was located in the Lower Harbor above Pope’s Island, and the other was located in the Upper Harbor between Sawyer Street and Coffin Avenue.

Since that time, all public discussions of CAD cells have centered on the Lower Harbor, with digging scheduled to begin this summer.

Environmental groups oppose the use of CAD cells for Superfund cleanup anywhere in the harbor, saying that the cells themselves will be too contaminated. They are also concerned about the risk of humans inhaling PCBs when the PCB-contaminated sediment is exposed to air while it temporarily sits on a split-hulled barge before being dumped into the CAD cell.

“We don’t know of any other site in the country that has successfully buried the concentrations of PCBs planned for the Lower Harbor,” Rasmussen said.

EPA officials have maintained that a Lower Harbor CAD cell is a safe alternative to shipping contaminated material off site-to be disposed of in a landfill in Michigan, in part because it would contain only sediment with PCB levels of 50 to 190 parts per million parts sediment.

In contrast, the potential Upper Harbor CAD cell would include sediment that is 68 times more contaminated, with PCB concentrations reaching as high as 13,000 parts per million and averaging in the thousands, according to the December 2011 Army Corps of Engineers assessment.

Also according to that assessment, the Upper Harbor CAD cell would contain 15,000 more cubic yards of contaminated sediment than the Lower Harbor CAD cell.

“Basically they want to take the hottest stuff we have in the harbor — the most dangerous stuff — and bury it right next to Riverside Park,” Rasmussen said.


Since the 2008 meeting in which the EPA introduced CAD cells to New Bedford, agency officials have publicly kept mum about the possibility of an Upper Harbor CAD cell.

On Oct. 24, 2008, six days prior to the first CAD cell meeting, Army Corps of Engineers Manager Robert Leitch sent an email to various Corps and EPA officials, including then-EPA Project Manager David Dickerson, detailing a conference call earlier that day.

Leitch’s email describes Dickerson telling call participants that “the final CAD cell report should focus on the LHCC (Lower Harbor CAD cell) and not include any info/reference on/to the Upper Harbor CAD cell.”

In the four years since the email was sent, the EPA has moved forward with research of both an Upper Harbor CAD cell and a Lower Harbor CAD cell. Emails between EPA and Army Corps of Engineers officials provided to the Standard-Times by the Buzzards Bay Coalition are dated as recently as June 4, 2010, with the Army Corps’ Upper Harbor CAD assessment dated December 2011.

During its community events, the EPA has focused on the Lower Harbor plans. Asked Wednesday if he was aware of a plan for an Upper Harbor CAD cell, Mayor Jon Mitchell said he was not.

But, he said, “It is somewhat premature to be talking about specific details concerning disposal of sediments” because the EPA’s settlement with contaminator AVX has not yet been approved by a federal judge.

Edwin Rivera, president of Hands Across the River, said he had not heard about an Upper Harbor CAD cell in any public meeting with the EPA. But, he said “CAD cells are absolutely unacceptable, particularly if they want to put it in front of a park.”

“This isn’t in front of a fish processing plant where you don’t have kids playing, this is next to a park,” he said. “If the mayor lets this happen, he is not advocating for the safety of this city.”

The EPA’s Army Corps of Engineers assessment of a Lower Harbor CAD cell, completed in 2010, is readily available on the EPA’s New Bedford Harbor website. However, the same study for the Upper Harbor CAD cell was not on the site as of 2 p.m. Thursday. That assessment was only obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Buzzards Bay Coalition.

“It certainly doesn’t look good”

EPA Spokesman Jim Murphy said that the Lower Harbor assessment was put online as part of the public comment period on the EPA decision to use a CAD cell in the Lower Harbor. The Upper Harbor assessment was not put online “because people have not asked for it,” he said.

“Each region has restrictions on how much stuff we can put on the website. We just can’t put everything up there,” he said. “It’s not like we are trying to hide anything, but I get that it certainly doesn’t look good.” He added that the Upper Harbor assessment would be uploaded shortly.

At a Sept. 21, 2012, meeting with the Standard-Times editorial board, EPA administrator Spalding denied any intent by the EPA to place a CAD cell in the Upper Harbor.

“I’ve seen some letters written to us with people suggesting we are going to CAD the whole thing; that is not going to happen and will not happen,” he said. “It never was under consideration and nobody ever thought we were going to take these high levels of contamination that are in the upper harbor and put them in CADs.”

On Thursday, Murphy clarified Spalding’s September comments, saying that the Region 1 administrator “didn’t know” about the assessment.

“It’s not Curt’s job to know about every document,” he said.

On Wednesday, Spalding told The Standard-Times that the EPA has neglected to mention considerations for an Upper Harbor CAD cell because “no one was thinking about it very seriously.”

“It might have been helpful to share that (the assessment) was being done, but the point of view of the team is that they weren’t seriously considering it,” Spalding said. “They were talking about things that they were really thinking about doing, and not things they weren’t seriously thinking about.”

Emails between the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers indicate that The Army Corps assessment of the Upper Harbor cost the EPA somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000.

That document, like its Lower Harbor counterpart, details not only the dimensions and PCB concentrations of the CAD cell, but also describes ways to prevent contamination while filling the CAD cell, and also calculates the percentage of PCBs that could seep out of the CAD cell over the next 40 years.

Emails between EPA and Army Corps of Engineers officials discuss the possibility of buying equipment that could be used to dig both the Upper and Lower Harbor CAD cells.

Buzzards Bay Coalition President Rasmussen said he believes the EPA’s silence about an Upper Harbor CAD cell is purposeful.

“While we were all discussing the Lower Harbor CAD cell, they were going ahead and doing this work for the Upper Harbor,” Rasmussen said. “How can they hold public meetings and not even mention they are considering this? They were making a conscious decision not to talk about it.”


Though the public was not apprised of the EPA’s Upper Harbor CAD cell considerations, AVX was.

AVX is the successor to Aerovox, the party responsible for contaminating the harbor with PCBs.

In August 2008, Weldon Bosworth, the principal scientist to AVX for its independent evaluation of the EPA’s harbor cleanup, wrote an email to then-EPA Project Manager Dickerson.

“Hi Dave, AVX has asked me to evaluate the likelihood and potential cost of siting a CAD in the Upper Estuary as a potential alternative to off-site disposal that you had discussed as at our last meeting,” he wrote.

Dickerson responded by asking EPA scientists to forward Bosworth information about the upper harbor’s geology.

Reached at his New Hampshire-based office, Bosworth said he could not comment on an Upper Harbor CAD cell until AVX’s $366 million settlement to pay for the harbor’s cleanup has been approved by a federal judge. “With what’s going on right now relative to the settlement, I’ve been asked not to talk about it,” he said.

In March 2011, the EPA released an Explanation of Significant Differences, which officially allowed the use of a Lower Harbor CAD cell.

During the public comment period on that document, AVX filed multiple complaints that the EPA had not gone ahead with an Upper Harbor CAD cell at the same time. The agency responded that, “EPA will continue its evaluation of an additional CAD cell, located in the Upper Harbor.”

“Since this evaluation is not currently complete, while the evaluation of the Lower Harbor CAD cell is, EPA is only proceeding with the Lower Harbor CAD cell at this time,” the agency responded.


Rasmussen said that he is worried about the existence of plans for an Upper Harbor CAD cell and, in particular, AVX’s knowledge of those plans. Rasmussen, who said he believes that the $366 million settlement between EPA and AVX is not enough money to clean the harbor, said he fears that once the settlement is approved in federal court the EPA will change its cleanup plan to include the Upper Harbor CAD cell.

“The only way that $366 million makes sense to me is if the EPA thinks they can get away with an Upper Harbor CAD cell,” Rasmussen said.

Spalding said Wednesday he could not comment “on specifics regarding the settlement” because its public comment period lasts until Dec. 17.

“What’s at issue in this settlement is that we had a $15 million per year budget with no prospect for more money,” he said. “We saw the opportunity to get more money and that is what we have pursued legally.”

Spalding did say that in July, the EPA plans to conduct a “focus feasibility study” that would reassess the use of Confined Disposal Facilities (CDFs), which would hold contaminated sediment in bulkheads lining the banks of the Upper Harbor.

Replacing CDFs with off-site disposal of sediment was briefly considered by the EPA in 2001. In 2002, the EPA decided to use three CDFs, instead of the originally proposed four. The current remedy still includes placing 175,000 cubic yards of sediments in CDFs.

The feasibility study would look at whether the EPA should use CDFs in harbor remediation. As part of that, the EPA is required to look at alternatives to replace the CDFs, which could include an Upper Harbor CAD cell.

“We have to ask the questions about all of the alternatives because of due diligence requirements,” Spalding said.

In the event that the EPA decides to change the current cleanup methods there would not necessarily be a public comment period.

If the agency decides that replacing CDFs with an Upper Harbor CAD cell constitutes “a fundamental change … to the basic features of the remedy selected,” a public comment period would be part of that process.

If the EPA decides the replacement is not a “fundamental change,” it can switch the remedies using an Explanation of Significant Differences (ESD), which is described as “only a notice of change” in EPA Guidelines and does not require a public comment period.

In 2010, when the EPA used an ESD in its decision to use a CAD cell in the Lower Harbor, it included a public comment period in an effort to assuage community fears.

Spalding said that while a public comment period could be optional in changing harbor cleanup practices, “There will be a full and open conversation about what is best for the harbor and what’s best for the community.”

For Rasmussen, though, the EPA will have to work to regain community trust.

“The EPA often expresses shock and dismay that we don’t take what they say at face value,” he said. “But how does planning this CAD cell behind our back build a record of trust?”

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