NEW BEDFORD — As funding from a major settlement against a former shoreside facility runs out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has received nearly $73 million in federal money to finish its decades-long cleanup of New Bedford Harbor, an 18,000-acre Superfund site.
Funds from the EPA’s $366 million settlement with AVX Corp., reached in 2012, have “just about” run out, said Dave Dickerson, EPA project manager for the New Bedford Harbor cleanup. A few million dollars remain, he estimated, noting it would not be enough to complete another section of shoreline cleanup.
“The timing is perfect because if we’re going to finish up these larger shoreline areas in the upper harbor, we need $73 million,” he said.
The harbor was highly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that local manufacturers released as industrial waste into the harbor from at least the 1940s through the 1970s. The EPA has since banned the man-made chemicals, noting they are carcinogenic to animals and potentially carcinogenic to humans.
It cost $600 per cubic yard to remove the most contaminated material, said Mayor Jon Mitchell. According to the EPA, about one million cubic yards of contaminated sediment have been dredged from the upper and lower harbor.
With this money, earmarked through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the EPA expects to complete the remaining cleanup work by 2025. An additional $4 million will also go toward the remaining work as part of a recent settlement reached by the EPA, the commonwealth and Cornell Dubilier Electronics, a South Carolina-based company that produces capacitors.
“We get a win from cleaning up legacy pollution; we get a win for creating a more vibrant ecosystem; a win that spurs economic development; a win that transforms a huge environmental bad into a community asset; a win that drives jobs in underserved communities with a legacy of pollution,” said EPA Regional Administrator David Cash.
“A win to help launch the offshore wind industry, all of the innovation, all of the jobs and all of the carbon-free emissions that are going to come from that,” he continued.
The press conference was held at the New Bedford Foss Marine Terminal, which is slated to be the city’s second offshore wind staging site, but city spokesperson Mike Lawrence confirmed that none of the announced EPA funding would be used for the terminal’s development.
Rather, it was held at the future terminal — which is in the process of being cleared of its own contaminants, like asbestos — to illustrate the city’s potential for investment and development when the harbor is cleaned and remediated, Lawrence explained.
The city has been waiting for the remediation of the North End shoreline areas to be completed so it can begin work developing its RiverWalk, the northern counterpart of the South End’s CoveWalk along the hurricane barrier.
“It’s those great public spaces that we seek to build and the contamination in the harbor has been a barrier until now. That’s why this is significant,” Mitchell said.
Michele Paul, director of the city’s Department of Environmental Stewardship, said the department will start working on its engineering and permitting strategy. Even though it received nearly $3 million more than a decade ago for the RiverWalk, Paul said city officials decided to delay the construction until the EPA finishes its work.
Due to sea level rise and elevation contractions, Paul said the path along the Acushnet River, as of now, is set to run from Market Basket to Belleville Avenue at the former Aerovox mill site, which is owned by the city and currently being cleaned.
Mitchell said in his State of the City address in April that they are working with the EPA to finish the cleanup and build the RiverWalk.
The harbor was designated a Superfund site in 1983 (three years after the federal Superfund law was established in 1980), with cleanup efforts starting in the 1990s.
In another signal that the EPA’s work is winding down, EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said the agency would be handing over its Sawyer Street shoreline support facility to the city, though she did not specify when.
An EPA spokesperson in response to a request did not say when it would be transferred, only that contaminated shoreline sediment is brought to the site, where cement is added as a drying agent before it is shipped off site for disposal in another facility.
The EPA transferred its harbor sediment dewatering facility on Hervey Tichon Avenue to the city in January of 2021.
McCabe said various legal settlements have provided about $500 million in funds to clean the harbor. The total cost, however, from all funding sources has been close to $1 billion.
“We should be ever mindful that the decisions made have great consequences,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, noting taxpayers have ultimately footed some of the millions spent on the harbor’s cleanup. “It’s so important that we pause, think about what we could be doing. It costs so much, and sometimes it’s not perfect in mitigating the results of decades of abuse and contamination.”
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