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EPA Releases Housatonic River Cleanup Plan

Berkshire Environmental Action Team

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a plan to clean the Housatonic River stretching from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to the Long Island Sound.

The 13-year, $613 million Rest of the River plan would involve active corrective measures along 10-and-a half miles of the river from Pittsfield to Lenox. General Electric’s Pittsfield plant released PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, into the waterway from the 1930s until the substance was banned in 1977. Jim Murphy is the EPA’s spokesman for the project.

“We are not trying to get all of the PCBs out,” Murphy said. “We are trying to get out an amount that we would then be able to install a cap over that. GE will be transporting and disposing all of the excavated contaminated sediment off-site at existing licensed facilities.”

The EPA’s plan used input from the Massachusetts and Connecticut environmental departments. Under a federal consent decree signed in 2000, GE is financially responsible for damage to the river and its banks. So far, 18 of 20 non-river remedial projects have been completed. In an email to WAMC, a GE spokesman said the company has made every effort to reach a common sense remedy for the Housatonic, including removing PCBs without destroying its ecosystem. GE says it offered an even larger cleanup project than the one proposed by Massachusetts. The company says it will review the EPA proposal and submit comments as laid out in the consent decree. The EPA controls the final decision when it comes to remediation results, but GE’s input will be considered and the company has the ability to appeal, according to Murphy.

“Following our decision, then GE has to come back to us with a very specific work plan,” Murphy said. “So we’re not telling them how they have to do the work. We are just telling them the standards they have to reach.”

While a majority of the work will occur between Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield and Woods Pond in Lenox, the EPA is proposing the removal of PCBs from four dams in southern Berkshire County, while the river’s Connecticut portion will be monitored for natural recovery. Murphy says the EPA expects work done upstream will allow the river to meet standards downstream.

“Our basic expected outcome is we want to reduce what we consider right now an unacceptable human health risk with direct contact from the sediments and the floodplain soil,” Murphy explained. “We also expect to see reductions in concentrations in the critters that are out in the river as well as the fish. That would allow increased human consumption of fish and other things people would take from the river.”

Informational public meetings will be held June 18th in Lenox and June 24th in Kent, Connecticut. A public hearing at which people can make oral comments will be scheduled at a later date. An open written public comment period runs from June 25th until August 8th. The plan is already being scrutinized by some area environmental groups. Tim Gray is the Housatonic River Keeper. He says he would like to see smaller GPS-controlled dredges and an emerging technology from North Carolina-based BioTech Restorations involving protein injections into contaminated soil so organisms can break down PCBs used on the river. 

“In this day and age not only do we want to see, but we think EPA should want to see some of these technologies attempted to be used so that maybe a BioTech can do a more sensitive cleanup than is being proposed by the EPA,” said Gray.

Gray says BioTech has offered to test its product on the Housatonic for free. Murphy says the EPA’s proposal involves adaptive management to consider outside input and innovative technologies.

“We think its common sense,” Murphy said. “We think it’s actually the best alternative out there. We’ve given it our best shot and now we’re interested in what others have to say.”

Murphy anticipates public comments will extend into September. The comments will then need to be considered and responded to before the EPA can finalize a plan taking into consideration GE’s input as well. GE will then have to create work plans for implementation. Murphy says it will be at least a few years before work begins.

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