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$73 million for New Bedford Harbor cleanup will finish the job in three years, EPA says

Jennette Barnes
From left: Andrew Saunders and Lou Cabral of New Bedford Foss Marine Terminal LLC, state Rep. Antonio Cabral, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell gather on the New Bedford waterfront Tuesday for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcement that federal money has been set aside to finish the New Bedford Harbor cleanup. The event was held outside a former energy plant slated to be redeveloped as an offshore wind terminal.

The billion-dollar cleanup of New Bedford Harbor should be finished in about three years, after almost four decades of work, with a new infusion of federal money, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the EPA, visited the city Tuesday to announce that the agency is dedicating $72.7 million to the cleanup from the federal infrastructure law.

Combined with a new $4 million corporate settlement, that money should be enough for the work to be finished.

“Finished — after so many years of hard work, and all the effort,” she said.

The harbor is contaminated with heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from manufacturing of electrical components.

McCabe said it’s important to remember that every site where the EPA works is a place where people live and work.

“We need to remember that, always, that the work that we're doing is improving where people live, and they raise their families, and they work, and they go to school,” she said. “And that's why this is so exciting.”

Jennette Barnes
Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, announces $72.7 million in federal funding to finish the New Bedford Harbor Superfund cleanup.

For the last decade, dredging of toxic PCBs from New Bedford Harbor was accelerated by a $366 million settlement with AVX Corporation, the successor to Aerovox.

But that money ran out, and until now, it was unclear when funding would be available to complete the project.

In addition to the federal funds, McCabe said the EPA and the state have reached a $4 million settlement with capacitor manufacturer Cornell Dubilier.

From the 1940s well into the 1970s, Aerovox and Cornell Dubilier used PCBs in the production of capacitors.

Both plants contaminated their grounds and New Bedford Harbor with PCBs through spills and intentional dumping, according to a U.S. Justice Department summary of the case.

Local environmentalists say even when the work is done, the harbor won’t be truly clean. Some level of PCBs will remain, and signs warning against seafood consumption will still be posted around the harbor.

Over the course of the project, some local residents have criticized the EPA for burying PCB-contaminated sediment beneath the harbor in confined aquatic disposal cells, known as CAD cells.

While the most highly contaminated material was trucked off site, less-contaminated sediment was buried. CAD cells are capped with three feet of clean sand.

David Lederer, the EPA’s now-retired former chief of the New Bedford Harbor site, said in 2019 that the CAD cells are some of the cleanest places in the harbor, and that scientific modeling shows they should not leak for at least 2,000 years.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection plans to continue monitoring the harbor with $400,000 from the Cornell Dubilier settlement. According to DEP, ongoing maintenance tasks include:

- monitoring groundwater at the shoreline disposal facility on Sawyer Street;

- maintaining (if required) and monitoring the thickness of sediment caps;

- monitoring local seafood for PCBs;

- long-term monitoring of species that live on or in the sediment in New Bedford Harbor and Buzzards Bay;

- and maintaining the warning signs against eating seafood from the harbor.

Jennette Barnes
Speakers at the EPA event Tuesday on New Bedford Harbor noted the significance of the location — the former Sprague/Eversource energy plant — as part of the story of environmental transformation in the city. The property is slated for redevelopment as an offshore wind terminal.

At the harbor event Tuesday, David Cash, the EPA’s New England regional administrator, emphasized what he said is the big picture of the harbor work: taking the problems of the past and making a better future.

“That’s what this is about,” he said. “How do we take what's happened in the past, legacy pollution, problems that we've had in this harbor, and turn them around and transform them into the future that we all want?”

And that includes addressing climate change, he said.

“Restoration of a port like this is what's going to get us there,” he said.

For the announcement, officials gathered on the shore of New Bedford Harbor, on the site of a closed energy plant slated for redevelopment as an offshore wind terminal.

Speakers at the press conference included U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.

Upcoming EPA work in New Bedford Harbor will focus on removing contamination from the shoreline and intertidal areas.

Work below the tide line is already complete.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.