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A decade ago the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection targeted General Electric as the source of PCB contamination throughout the Pittsfield, Mass., area. Robert E. Bell moved forward as the DEP’s senior attorney in a protracted legal case that would have lasting regulatory consequences. Spearheading the DEP’s legal claims against GE over the disposal of PCBs, a probable carcinogen, and other hazardous chemicals into the Housatonic River and onto hundreds of properties in the Pittsfield area, including GE’s own 250-acre Pittsfield facility, Bell recalls it as the most defining moment in his career. “It led to increased cooperation with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which in the 1990s exercised its Superfund authority, one of the leading drivers in negotiating a resolution,” said Bell, chief counsel for the DEP’s Western Region since 1993. In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the “Superfund” Act, in response to public concerns over widespread pollution in their communities. The Superfund Act prompted the EPA to create new policies and technical methods for dealing with hazardous materials and contaminated sites. The EPA administers the Superfund national program in conjunction with individual states and tribal governments. Although the case originated in the 1980s, it “really hit a head of steam in the 1990s,” as the DEP and EPA joined forces in a global negotiation with GE calling for a massive cleanup, Bell recalled. By 2000, regulatory pressure against GE culminated in four significant agreements between the state and federal governments and GE, with the filing of a judicial Consent Decree in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Mass., for cleanup of the GE facility, the river and its floodplain, and other properties. DEP and GE also entered into an Administrative Consent Order that detailed GE’s responsibility for continued fast-track cleanup of hundreds of parcels of land that had been contaminated with soil-like material, used in filtering PCB-laden oil, which GE had then allowed residents to take for private use. “There were hundreds of properties that had this stuff. So our consent order takes care of that,” Bell said. As a positive end to an attorney general investigation into GE’s knowledge of that giveaway of contaminated fill, he said, was the company’s payment of a $1.25 million fine. Of that amount, $1 million was used to create the Berkshire Environmental Fund for environmental projects and education, and soil sampling, in Berkshire County. Finally, Bell said, the city of Pittsfield, GE and the Pittsfield Economic Redevelopment Authority signed an agreement for redevelopment of GE’s 250-acre downtown Pittsfield facility. A PERFECT MARRIAGE Such high-profile environmental cases, however, aren’t the norm for the Western Region, and most businesses are in “compliance or substantial compliance” with DEP regulations, Bell said. As chief regional counsel, negotiation is an important tool for Bell and his team of four attorneys who work at the DEP’s 100-employee office in Springfield. Bell, 40, considers his work to be the perfect marriage of his lifelong interest in science and law. Before he earned his law degree at the University of Oregon in 1988, he did graduate coursework in urban and regional planning at George Washington University in 1984 and received his bachelor’s in political science there in 1983. That year he spent six weeks aboard a research vessel while taking a full undergraduate semester of marine and nautical science at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass. “I thought that I’d likely work in this field in terms of a substantive interest in science and ecology,” Bell said. “I thought if I wanted to become a lawyer, I wanted to keep it spicy.” Bell admits that the “spicy” cases comprise about 25 percent of his caseload. Equally important, however, is the daily grind of preparing legal documents, conducting in-house meetings, devising enforcement strategy, and working with biologists, hydrogeologists, and other technical professionals involved in regulating activity impacting the environment. His principal role is to provide legal counsel and problem-solving for enforcement, permitting and compliance issues, and to prosecute DEP administrative enforcement actions. He is the western office’s chief legal representative before, during and after a legal proceeding. “The majority of cases are resolved by agreement,” Bell said. “If we can get a consent agreement, that’s the best way. Typically, that’s what happens.” His duties revolve around three DEP regulatory areas: hazardous materials cleanup under MGL Chapter 21E, resource protection for water supplies and wetlands, and commercial/industrial waste prevention including Clean Air Act permitting and enforcement. Bell views his role as unique in fostering communication and informed decision-making at every level of the DEP. LANDMARK CASES During his tenure as chief regional counsel Bell has taken on some tough and complex cases. He’s currently litigating a DEP appeal of a New York state air emissions permit for the St. Lawrence Cement Co., which wants to build a huge cement production facility in Hudson, N.Y., about 25 miles upwind from the Massachusetts border. The DEP contends that New York’s draft air permit should be stricter on limiting the amount of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter to be emitted by the plant to meet the law. When the DEP, together with the state attorney general’s office, pursued a Chapter 21E claim over a large and dangerous tire pile in Monson, Mass., they used the state’s Superfund authority to order a cleanup. The DEP pursued the Sears Roebuck Co. and several other businesses that had contributed tires to the site. Bell said the DEP argued that the enormous size of the pile and the unsafe manner with which the tires had been stacked posed a serious fire and chemical hazard. In 2001, the companies agreed to remove a majority of the tires and dispose of them properly. When violations involve small businesses on an industrywide basis, such as photo processing and dry cleaning companies, it’s generally not practical to take regulatory action against individual small businesses one at a time, Bell insisted. “We set up compliance programs for the industry as a whole,” he said. Yet for Bell, his professional pride in his work transcends winning cases and negotiated settlements. It’s the personal satisfaction he gets with knowing that with each DEP success, it means the continued protection of the environment for future generations in Western Massachusetts. “It’s a sense of the pride of the hard work you put into something. In a lot of cases you can really feel good that your work not only paid off, but that the benefit goes beyond your sense of doing a job well,” Bell said.

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