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New Bedford fishes for ways to clear its harbor of PCBs

What to do about a hazardous waste dump is a problem for any city. But when the ''dump'' is your harbor and your city has the largest fishing fleet on the East Coast, the problem becomes crucial.

New Bedford, Mass., has that problem.

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At the bottom of this proud and historic city's harbor are more than 100 tons of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) -- put there over the years by its own industries and, for the moment, judged too dangerous and expensive to clean up.

But for a massive hurricane barrier erected across most of the mouth of New Bedford Harbor by the US Army Corps of Engineers, some are concerned that the PCB-laden sediment might now be escaping toward the rich Georges Bank fishing grounds 100 miles away.

State environmental officials estimate the cost of safely dredging and disposing of the sediment could run as high as $130 million to $150 million.

Thus, New Bedford bears the unwanted distinction of having the No. 1 pollution problem in Massachusetts and, by designation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one of the worst in the United States.

Other areas have more dense concentrations of PCBs in their water and soil, but in no other case is the problem as complicated as it is here, according to a report by environmental engineer Grant Weaver for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management.

As long as the problem remains, state officials say it poses a major potential threat to public health. Moreover, in some respects the city's economic future is almost literally stuck in the mud because of it. With the local unemployment rate approaching 14 percent, the area is one of the most depressed in New England.

Routine dredging of the harbor, which is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet on the East Coast, cannot begin for fear of stirring up and spreading the wastes. Replacement of an aging and undersized bridge that blocks profitable new activity at a shipping terminal also has had to be postponed. And local lobstermen claim they've lost half a million dollars since the harbor was closed to them in 1979. They now are forced to take their boats well out to sea, where the risks and expenses are greater and the returns generally smaller than they are close to land.

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But there are signs that this city of 98,000 people may yet be able to extricate itself from its predicament. Late last month the EPA added New Bedford to its list of sites eligible for assistance under the $1.6 billion ''superfund'' to clean up hazardous wastes. The EPA already is studying how to handle the contamination.

Last May, Gov. Edward J. King (D) appointed a state commission to recommend procedures for cleaning up the mess and identify possible sources of financing. Its final report is expected late next month. The governor also is seeking legislation to establish the state equivalent of the EPA superfund, which could help meet the costs of cleanup here.

The state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) also plans to spend 12 to 18 months and as much as $2 million to study the New Bedford problem.

Meanwhile, there is a sense of anticipation here since a long-awaited environmental impact study on the proposed replacement bridge is due to be released at a public meeting Sept. 9. Construction may still be years away, but local merchants are particularly eager to see a new span in place. And new tenants at the shipping terminal could translate into up to $1 million a year in lease and tax revenues for the city.

One of those pleased with the recent course of developments is US Rep. Gerry Studds (D) who represents New Bedford in Congress. ''While it is with some reluctance that we must accept the apparent severity of the contamination, the superfund listing is an extremely encouraging development,'' he says.

Thomas McLoughlin, deputy commissioner of the DEQE, calls the task of cleaning up and disposing of the contaminated sediment ''a monumental problem'' -- but not an insoluble one.

More than likely, the dredging will be limited to ''hot spots'' around the harbor where contamination is particularly severe. A floating, computerized, Swedish-made device known as ''Sludge Monster'' is one option under study for dredging. It is capable of sucking sediment from the harbor floor and piping it to the surface without risking further spread. Even hot-spot dredging, however, could cost $40 million and take five years to complete, DEQE officials say.

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