Stimulus funds to hasten cleanup in New Bedford (Boston Globe)

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff

NEW BEDFORD - Millions of dollars in federal stimulus money will be invested in a massive cleanup of polluted New Bedford Harbor, home of one of New England's oldest and largest Superfund sites, federal officials announced yesterday.

US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson came to the Whaling City to unveil the award of at least $25 million, and perhaps as much as $35 million - the single largest portion of the $600 million in stimulus money designated for Superfund cleanups nationwide. Four other New England properties, in Mans field, Lowell, Kingston, N.H., and Strafford, Vt., also received millions in funding.

"Today we are finally back on the road to get our harbor back," boomed Senator Edward M. Kennedy via telephone at a press conference that included Jackson, Governor Deval Patrick, and US Representative Barney Frank. Kennedy has been a champion of the harbor and pushed hard for the stimulus funds, designed to help jumpstart the ailing economy, to be sent to New Bedford.

"This city has a remarkable history and we can finally say our best days are ahead," Kennedy said.

Mayor Scott Lang of New Bedford said the money would extend work for locals and probably create "several dozen jobs." But more important, he said, the cleanup will allow "tremendous economic opportunities" for the revitalization of the New Bedford waterfront. It will "take away the stigma" of the filthy water, he said, and with that rejuvenation will come even more jobs.

Pollution of New Bedford Harbor began decades ago, and by the mid-1900s, the once-pristine harbor had been transformed into an 18,000-acre dumping ground for polychlorinated biphenyls. Through the 1970s, at least two electronic manufacturers dumped tons of the chemicals, which settled deep in the harbor's sediment.

Today, the harbor remains a blight on New Bedford's fabled reputation as one of the nation's top fishing ports: The place where millions of pounds of seafood are unloaded each year is so deeply polluted that eating fish caught there is prohibited.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, which are considered probable human carcinogens, were federally banned in the mid-1970s. By 1983, New Bedford Harbor was declared a Superfund site, one of the nation's most polluted locations, with almost 900,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Since then, about $270 million has been spent cleaning it up - but the vast majority of the polluted sediment remains.

Federal officials were able to get about $100 million from the companies responsible for the toxic pollution, but by 2004 that money was all but gone. Since then, the cleanup project has relied on federal funding of about $15 million a year.

By the EPA's own estimate, at that funding level the cleanup would have taken another 38 years, at a cost of $1 billion.

The stimulus funds will hasten the cleanup by four or five years, EPA officials said. They are also exploring other ways to dispose of the sediment to finish the cleanup far sooner.

The additional money will allow a massive "dewatering" facility on the harbor to operate continuously eight months a year, instead of the 40 to 45 days it now runs. The facility squeezes water out of the sediment before it is shipped to a hazardous waste disposal site in Michigan.

"You have heard of shovel-ready; well, this is dredge-ready," said EPA chief Jackson. "This is real money, a real cleanup for the New Bedford community." The harbor was one of 50 sites nationwide that received cleanup money.

The federal stimulus money is supposed to be spent as soon as possible, so preference was given to projects already running or able to begin quickly. A range of funding was given in part to encourage the money to be spent quickly.

The New Bedford announcement also underscored a promised change under President Obama's administration: the reinstatement of a tax on polluting industries, such as chemical companies, to help pay for cleanups if the polluter goes bankrupt or disappears.

The tax expired in the mid-1990s and the money all but ran out several years later. If the tax had survived, New Bedford would probably have received money from it.

Jackson said the administration wants the polluting tax to begin again in 2011, hopefully after the economy recovers.

Other Superfund projects in New England that won stimulus money were the Silresim site in Lowell, which received $10 million to $25 million; the Hatheway & Patterson site in Mansfield, $10 million to $25 million; the Elizabeth Mine site in Strafford, Vt., $5 million to $10 million; and up to $5 million for the Ottati & Goss site in Kingston, N.H., a former steel drum company.