First confession: I love coffee, but with age I have found that coffee with a lot of milk is kinder to my upper GI tract than the straight black brew I once enjoyed.  This means I prefer to drink latte  in my travels around the Commonwealth.  Many people (my wife included) would say, “once you add milk to coffee you have pretty much ruined it”.  I understand this thinking, but sometimes you just have to compromise with what life sends your way.

Second Confession: There are many coffee shops and cafés that I have not sampled that may serve outstanding coffee and I just don’t know about them yet; this is a risk one must take in reviewing almost any product.  I apologize in advance for any worthy contenders I have overlooked (please send suggestions).

Third and Final Confession: As you will read, my list has a decidedly western Massachusetts bent.  If anything, I believe that I have tried many more coffee shops/cafes in eastern Mass than in western Mass.  I can not explain this bias, but it may be that quality coffee is more important when you spend time in the sparsely populated wilds of western Mass, far from the civilizing influences of Boston.  I don’t know any other way to explain it.

So my award for best coffee in the Commonwealth?  Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, hands-down.  Smoky aromatic nuances as you lift the cup for the first sip, a bitter rush to tongue that grabs your attention (in a totally good way), and then the oh-so satisfying richness of the micro-foam; as good as it can be.  In second place, only slightly behind, is Woodstar in Northampton (couldn’t find a web site, but the actual location is easy to find).  Woodstar is one of the big Northampton hangouts; don’t expect to be able to park out front.  Many a bad day has been salvaged by coffee from Woodstar.   One warning though, Woodstar has wonderful treats to go with your coffee and you are made to look into the display case at the treats while you wait to order your coffee.

Honorable mention goes to Greenfield Coffee on Bank Row in Greenfield.  So far I have only had 3 or 4 cups here (thus only honorable mention status), but they were all outstanding.  The people here are committed to making the best coffee possible and the last time I was there the barista took out some special rare coffee for us to try; at no charge.

I recommend all three of these locations without hesitation.  Please let me know if you have a favorite I should try.

If you heat your home with oil, as so many of us in New England do, you should be aware of a new Massachusetts law regarding home heating oil tanks.  The law requires certain upgrades that make leaks from your tank less likely.  This may include either a safety valve or an oil supply line with a protective sleeve.  If these features are already part of your system, and if they were installed after 1990, you may not need to take any additional steps now.  But if you don’t have one or both of these important features, we urge you to have them installed.  It’s well worth the estimated $150 to $350 the upgrade will cost, and it’s the law.

Not maintaining your oil tank can have disastrous consequences.  When it comes to oil spills, we’ve seen it all.  Oil storage tanks in people’s basements that fail catastrophically at the seams, spraying oil all over the contents of the basement.  Floodwater in basements floating oil tanks upward until the feed line breaks.  Vent lines plugged by animal nests or leaves, causing the tank to overpressurize and burst during filling.  Imagine the heartbreak of tossing the entire oil-soaked contents of your basement into a dumpster, not to mention the cost of the clean-up!

To make matters even worse, a sudden release of more than ten gallons of oil to your basement may be reportable to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), and you, as the homeowner, become liable for the cleanup.  Released oil often migrates quickly through cracks in basement floors to the soil below the house.  Cleaning up soil and groundwater impacts after an oil spill can be very costly.  MassDEP estimates typical residential oil releases cost $20,000 to $50,000 to clean up, while some sites run over $200,000.  That’s a pretty big unexpected expense to try to squeeze into your household budget.

Fortunately, the new regulations have a second part: an obligation for homeowner insurance companies to offer coverage for home heating oil spills.  Many homeowners are shocked to learn (sometimes too late) that their insurance doesn’t cover spills from their heating system.  The new coverage won’t be automatically added to your policy; you’ll need to ask for it, and pay a bit extra for the coverage.  In our opinion, it’s well worth it to avoid the nightmare scenario of a large oil spill in your basement that you end up liable for on your own nickel.  So contact your oil burner service company to see if you need an upgrade, and contact your insurance company to inquire about oil spill coverage.


Sequoia National Park

This week we rounded out our trip to four western US national parks with a visit to Sequoia.  This part of the trip was a little crazy because we had to drive about 500 miles in one day to go from Zion Park in southern Utah to the little California town of Lemon Cove just outside of Sequoia, but I am so glad we did.  Nestled high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the groves of Sequoia trees lack the sheer geologic drama of Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyons, but these majestic trees convey a sense of timelessness that is hard to put into words.

I learned at the visitor’s center that these giant trees only grow in 75 locations in the high Sierras and all are at elevations between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above see level.  The oldest are believed to be 3,000 years old; they were already giants when the Magna Carta was written.  While they are perfectly adapted to the rare ecological niche they occupy, they have no capacity to live outside of it.

Standing next to them, I reminded myself that the Sequoia trees were just plants; admittedly very big, very old plants.  Despite efforts to hang on to scientific objectivity, it kept slipping away; they are truly awe inspiring.

Getting to Sequoia Park is inconvenient; it is not really on the way to anyplace else.  The lodge we stayed at seemed designed with user unfriendliness in mind;  let me add that the park’s road system is under reconstruction with regular long delays.   Yet walking among these giant ancient trees is likely to be one of the most memorable parts of this trip out west.

This week we are visiting the southwestern US and arrived in canyon country yesterday.  Wow, the scenery just driving here from Las Vegas was breath taking!  Here are two wonderful experiences that were unexpected.  First, driving out of Vegas on interstate 15, the interstate passes directly through Virgin River Canyon.  I can not imagine what it took to build this stretch of road, but it is one of the most spectacular views from a highway that I have ever seen.

The second treat was a the Rocking V Cafe in Kanab Utah.  A restaurant in the small town of Kanab Utah conveniently located between the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce National Parks.  Some of the best prepared food I have ever had and the prices are quite reasonable.  The corn meal crusted pan fried ruby trout is to die for.

A visit to the High Line Park in Manhattan made skipping work last week look like a stroke of genius. Rather than demolish an abandoned overgrown elevated freight track that once served upper story loading docks, City Parks used the community’s enthusiasm and the track’s unique architectural features to transform this former eye-sore into a linear park. The last train ran the High Line in 1980, carrying a load of frozen turkeys.

Clever paving intersperses plantings with the former rail tracks, ample benches and even a sunning lawn. The High Line elevates City spirits as it winds through 20 west side city blocks. Like creatively used space elsewhere, the High Line has sparked a building boom and urban renaissance, with apartment rental notice taglines now reading “near the High Line”. We saw butterfly and bee-filled flower gardens (yes beehives are allowed in the City), birdhouses, sculptures, stark brick walls, airy new chrome and glass, the gaiety of tourists and blasé kindness of New Yorkers juxtaposed into a sunshine daydream memory. Yup, I could almost live in the City.

The High Line winds from Gansevoort St (W 14th St and 10th Ave) to 30th St, 11th Ave. The park is easily accessible from the West Side Highway; near Chelsea Pier and the Intrepid Museum. There are elevators for handicapped access along the way. I’d recommend a walk from south to north, because the icing on the cake was a visit to the gourmet food truck- food court at 30th Street under the High Line. There we savored a large spicy Falafel platter in a festive multi-lingual community Bier Garden atmosphere. For this seasoned urban explorer, truly one of the best meals I’ve had in NYC, and for thirteen bucks? Fuhgettaboutit!
High Line photo

As we all know, one of the hottest topics in the environmental industry right now is vapor intrusion.  In Massachusetts, vapor intrusion considerations have been around for more than 20 years, since the beginning of the Massachusetts Contingency Plan (MCP) program.  This is no surprise, as Massachusetts has been a technical and regulatory leader in the environmental field since the early days.  However, Massachusetts has reached a critical crossroads in the regulation of the vapor intrusion pathway, and stakeholders, especially those who are involved in brownfields redevelopment projects, are hoping that they choose a wise pathway moving forward.

As a rookie regulator at the start of my professional career in 1992, I first became aware of vapor intrusion as an exposure pathway when a colleague of mine was working on a project in Needham.  Apparently, an industrial facility was discharging wastewater containing chlorinated solvents into corroded subsurface drain lines, resulting in groundwater contamination.  The impacted groundwater migrated downgradient to a school and a residential subdivision.  An indoor air testing program detected the solvents in indoor air.  From that event, vapor intrusion considerations were propelled forward, and the concept of MassDEP’s GW-2 standards based on the Johnson & Ettinger Model was born.

MassDEP’s GW-2 standards were based on an early version of this model that had been around since the early 1990s.  However, not long after implementation in late 1993, MassDEP technical staff began questioning whether the model was portraying an accurate picture of what was being observed in the real world.  In the late 1990s, MassDEP began to see a growing body of data collected at sites that indicated the Johnson & Ettinger Model was not providing a consistent prediction of what was being observed.  MassDEP lowered GW-2 standards for many common chlorinated volatile organic compounds and continued its evaluation of the data collected during site assessment and clean-ups.

Fast-forward to where we are today:  MassDEP has issued updated Vapor Intrusion Guidance, currently in draft form dated December, 2010.  While MassDEP’s updated guidance may be the state of the science available at this time, it is a substantial departure from how vapor intrusion has been regulated in Commonwealth over the past 20 years.  As it is currently issued by MassDEP, the updated guidance appears to bring a substantial amount of additional uncertainty to the redevelopment of brownfields sites.  Many brownfields projects are undertaken due to the availability of transferrable tax credits which make these projects economically feasible.  Without the availability of these credits, many projects would fail to receive financing.  However, the availability (and the amount) of the tax credits is dependent on these brownfields projects reaching some type of Permanent Solution.  The updated guidance, as currently proposed, reduces the likelihood of Permanent Solutions at vapor intrusion sites.

While all of us who work on vapor intrusion sites appreciate the hard work that MassDEP has put into the updated guidance, we also hope that the final version will not make it more difficult to achieve Permanent Solutions, especially at brownfields projects.  While we can not predict what the final guidance will include, there are actions that can be done now to reduce the likelihood of regulatory risk on projects now in the pipeline.  These actions include designing projects to include vapor intrusion barriers and properly engineered subslab depressurization system piping in new construction and rehab work.  First and foremost, consideration of potential vapor intrusion issues, and appropriate early due diligence and evaluation, should be at the top of every brownfields project to-do list.


Aroclor 1254 was the PCB mixture most commonly used in building materials, based on my personal experience reviewing test results.  Recently, as I was digesting data and researching literature to prepare for my UMass Soils Conference presentation this fall, I discovered something interesting about Aroclor 1254 that I hadn’t known; there are two types of Aroclor 1254, and while they are similar in their physical properties, from the standpoint of environmental toxicology they are very different.

Type 1 Aroclor 1254 was one of the commercial PCB mixtures manufactured and sold by the Monsanto Company prior to 1971; a high percentage of its production was used in electrical equipment like transformers and capacitors, smaller amounts were used in other applications like being formulated into building materials (e.g. paint and caulk).  In its pure form Aroclor 1254 (Type 1 and Type 2) is an highly viscous liquid that is thicker than honey.  While each batch of PCBs differed slightly in its exact chemical composition (based on the percentages of the the individual PCB congeners present), these differences from batch to batch were small. However, around 1971 the formula for making Aroclor 1254 changed in a fundamental way giving rise to what is now referred to as Type 2 Aroclor 1254.

Type 2 Aroclor 1254 was an indirect result of the 1968 Yusho rice oil poisonings. After the Yusho incident, Monsanto (the sole US PCB manufacturer) was seeking alternatives to reduce the toxicity of its PCB mixtures.  They hit on two ideas:

  1. Introducing a new PCB mixture, called Aroclor 1016, that contained lower concentrations of the volatile low molecular weight congeners and the more toxic high molecular weight congeners; and
  2. Stopping the sale of PCBs for use in applications that were not considered to be “totally enclosed”.  The totally enclosed requirement was intended to limit PCB uses that were more likely to result in human or environmental exposures.

Aroclor 1016 was produced by first making Aroclor 1242 (which it resembles), and then through distillation removing the light and heavy ends of the mixture.  As predicted, the toxicity of Aroclor 1016 was significantly less than that of other PCB mixtures; so far so good.   However, at this point in the story you might want to ask: “what happened to the light and heavy ends removed from the Aroclor 1242 to make Aroclor 1016?  Were these simply discarded?”

The answer is no, they were not discarded.  These light and heavy ends were used as feedstock for the manufacture of Type 2 Aroclor 1254.  Type 1 Aroclor 1254 was manufactured as a one step process; biphenyl (derived from coal tar) was chlorinated until the chlorine content in the resulting PCB mixture reached 54%.  In contrast Type 2 Aroclor 1254 was manufactured using a two step process where the by-products of Aroclor 1016 manufacturing (the light and heavy ends) were re-chlorinated to end up with a final product with 54% chlorine.

The physical properties of Type 1 and Type 2 Aroclor 1254 are virtually indistinguishable, but their chemical, toxicological and likely environmental properties have been shown to be different.  Type 2 contains higher concentrations of the so-called “co-planer” congeners (for chemists: that means the ones with no ortho substitutions) including about 5 times more of the three most toxic of these co-planer congeners, PCB 126, PCB 169 and PCB 77.  Type 2 Aroclor 1254 has also been reported to contain significant concentrations of the highly toxic polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs); these are virtually absent in Type 1 Aroclor 1254.

One interesting question is how much of the total Arochlor 1254 production was Type 2?  The answer from Monsanto’s production records indicates that about 1% of total Aroclor 1254 was Type 2.  Since Monsanto stopped PCB sales for other than totally enclosed uses at about the same time that production of Type 2 Aroclor 1254 began, it is likely that most or all of it went into electrical equipment like transformers and capacitors with little if any going into building materials.

Another interesting observation is that it is likely that Type 2 Aroclor 1254 is the PCB mixture that has been most commonly used in conducting toxicological studies on PCBs.  This is because towards the end of Monsanto’s PCB production (after 1970), most or all of the Aroclor 1254 being produced was Type 2.  As a result, this was the Aroclor 1254 that was available for distribution to researchers when toxicological studies were being undertaken on PCBs.  It took almost 20 years after the end of US PCB production before scientists could detect the chemical differences between Type 1 and Type 2 Aroclor 1254.

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