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Berkshires Weigh In On U.S. EPA's Cleanup Plan For Housatonic

Berkshire Environmental Action Team

More than 100 people turned out for a public meeting in Lenox, Massachusetts Wednesday night to hear the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to clean the Housatonic River from Pittsfield 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. The plan calls for the removal of nearly 1 million cubic yards of material from the river and surrounding areas that would reduce the PCB levels by roughly 90 percent. The material would be taken by rail out of Berkshire County. But how the waste gets to the tracks is of concern to many who spoke at the meeting, like Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi.

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi raised concerns about potential truck traffic used to get contaminated sediment to rail lines. About 100 people attended the EPA's public meeting at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Wednesday night.

“You talked about the possibility of 50,000 trucks over a five-year period,” Bianchi said. “That has significant impact on roadways, has significant impact on infrastructure and some would suggest significant impact on things like tourism and the local economy.”

Under a federal consent decree signed in 2000, GE is financially responsible for physical damage to the river and neighboring communities. GE will submit a specific work plan subject to EPA approval taking into consideration road use and noise and air quality. Dean Tagliaferro is the EPA’s Rest of the River project manager. He says the agency is willing to meet with anyone who has concerns.

“We are aware of that,” Tagliaferro said. “We know it’s a big impact. We don’t know how GE is going to do it yet. We didn’t want to tie their hands with telling them exactly how to do the work. So that’s all going to have to be determined in the future.”

Barbara Cianfarini of Pittsfield spoke as a member of the group Citizens for PCB Removal. She lived through GE’s cleanup of two miles of the river nearly a decade ago.

“I can tell you it is not as bad as you think it’s going to be,” Cianfarini said. “It’s not wonderful. But it is doable. It is livable. If you bring your concerns to the people in charge they do listen and they do try and address them.”

The EPA outlined about 12,000 samples taken during the 2000s in which PCBs were detected as deep as seven feet in the river and at a rate of 874 parts per million in the floodplain soil. The EPA federal default level is 1 part per million. Samples of fish also showed levels of 100, compared to the EPA’s default of 1. Working with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, endangered habitat areas were identified where excavation would only occur if PCB levels exceeded 50 parts per million. Bob Cianciarulo heads the EPA’s Superfund Section for the region.

“What we’ve said is the trade-off we’re making for the endangered species occurrences is we’ll go to this less stringent standard for human health, still an acceptable risk, but less stringent to balance that habitat concern,” explained Cianciarulo.

Using a nine-point review process including cost, long-term reliability and protection of human and environmental health, the EPA chose this plan among several alternatives. The largest alternative called for the removal of nearly 3 million cubic yards of material that would take 52 years to complete at a cost of nearly $1 billion. The chosen plan calls for river dredging and capping using a mix of natural and artificial materials where needed. The EPA’s Tagliaferro says the agency doesn’t want to completely disrupt the river’s natural flow and that those caps could fail, but GE is required to maintain them. Renee Wendell, who manages Bartholomew’s Cobble in southern Berkshire County, questioned that approach.

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

“Then why not dredge more than a foot and a half?” asked Wendell.

“That’s a very good question,” Tagliaferro answered. “That’s another balance. There’s PCBs down seven or eight feet in some of these reaches. So one option that was looked at which is what led to the three million cubic yards was to remove all PCBs in the river channel down to 1 part per million. That is an option. We didn’t propose it. But it is out there. We didn’t select it. We balanced it; that that probably wasn’t the best option.”

The EPA says its plan is open to new technologies for cleaning the river. Another public meeting is scheduled for June 24th in Kent, Connecticut followed by a public hearing at a date and location to be determined in September. GE has said it couldn’t reach an overall agreement with the EPA, but it will review the proposal and plans to submit comments. A public comment period begins June 25th and is expected to run into September. Work isn’t anticipated to start for another five years barring appeals from the public or GE.

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