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Stakeholders Raise Concerns Over PCB Cleanup In Berkshires

Representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, General Electric, and the state governments of Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently met with stakeholders to provide updates on the cleanup plan for removing PCB’s from the Housatonic River and Silver Lake in Pittsfield.

At an EPA Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council meeting at the Lenox Library Wednesday evening, community stakeholders raised concerns over information presented on a status update of the cleanup project at Silver Lake in Pittsfield.

The EPA is currently overseeing the work being conducted by contractors hired by General Electric at Silver Lake, which includes the replacement of PCB-contaminated sediment on the banks of the lake located near the former General Electric plot in Pittsfield. The project will also include a capping of the lake bottom to contain the believed to be cancer-causing chemicals dumped into the lake by GE until the 1970s.

During the EPA’s presentation it was revealed that on April 24th and May 2nd the airborne concentration of PCBs detected at the site exceeded the set “action-level”.

GE’s contractors stopped their work on both occasions, which involved pulling large amounts of debris from the lake bottom, and a series of corrective action steps were developed after the April 24th event.

Valerie Anderson, a Pittsfield resident and member of the Housatonic Clean River Coalition, was one of the stakeholders at the meeting who expressed concern over the lack of notification given to city residents of the elevated PCB levels.

"They're posting it on a website over a week after the spike in the airborne PCB's. That's inadequete," said Anderson.

GE followed steps to alert the EPA of the airborne contamination exceeding the “action-level”. The EPA did not post a public notice for the May 2nd detection on its website until May 9th.

EPA spokesman Jim Murphy said that EPA did notify the City of Pittsfield and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, which occupies property adjacent to the Silver Lake cleanup site. Murphy added, though, that the request to notify nearby residents of elevated airborne PCB detection was a reasonable one.

“The action level is below a level that we think would cause any health impacts so we set that at that level so when that happens we don't want it to go any higher," said Murphy. "So I think it's a reasonable request for people to say that they want to know when that happens."

At the meeting the EPA also addressed concerns that contaminated sediments from the Rest of River cleanup in the Housatonic would be placed in a landfill in Berkshire County. Jim Murphy assured that the EPA is not considering that as an option.

"One of the main things that we are trying to accomplish in our meetings with GE now is to really come to a general understanding of what the best cleanup would be," said Murphy. "Our position is it would be better if the waste was disposed out of state."

A  letter signed by government leaders from Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield and prepared by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission was sent to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection expressing that changing regulations could allow a PCB landfill to be placed in Berkshire County.

In response DEP Commissioner Ken Kimmel said  that the state is also not considering placing contaminated sediment on site.

A written statement emailed to WAMC reads in part:

“There are a number of existing regulatory provisions in place to prevent the placement of contaminated sediments on uncontaminated areas. Nothing in the draft regulations affect those regulatory provisions.”

But despite the verbal assurances from the EPA and the DEP that a landfill would not be placed in Berkshire County, BRPC Executive Director Nat Karns said he’d like a more concrete promise in case future action is taken in court to argue for the legal right to dump in Berkshire County.

“Me Dredging up an email from Commissioner Kimmel three years from now when he may have been replaced because we have a new governor who appoints a new secretary who appoints a new commissioner - having an email with an attachment that doesn't even have a letterhead on it to wave around bears less weight than something that is more official in nature," said Karns.

PCB contaminated sediment from the first 1.5 miles of dredging in the Housatonic River in Pittsfield is being already held at two separate locations within the city.

At the meeting GE stated that contaminated sediment from Silver Lake is being sent to a site in Michigan.

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