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Many Say EPA's Housatonic River Cleanup Plan Falls Short

Jim Levulis

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing on the agency’s cleanup plan for the Housatonic River Tuesday night in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Fifteen of the roughly 60 people at the meeting put their comments on the record with many saying the EPA’s proposal does not go far enough in removing PCBs from the Housatonic River. Barbara Cianfarini is with the group Citizens for PCB Removal.

“If you had a cancer to remove you would not remove 25 percent of a cancer and leave 75 percent behind,” said Cianfarini.

General Electric’s Pittsfield plant dumped polychlorinated biphenyls into the river from the 1930s until the chemical was banned in 1977. EPA’s 13-year, $613 million Rest of the River plan includes removing 1 million cubic yards of contaminated material. One alternative would remove nearly 2 million cubic yards and take 52 years. The EPA’s Jim Murphy says the plan was chosen after working with Massachusetts state agencies, which thought it better not to disturb environmentally sensitive areas.

“We thought this plan is more-balanced,” Murphy said. “That one really would have entailed essentially going in dredging the whole river, removing all of the banks and really removing a good part of the floodplain. It would have also capping, but there would have been a lot more removal before the capping.”

Murphy says the proposal meets the EPA’s health standards. UMass Amherst environmental conservation professor emeritus Joseph Larson spoke on behalf of the board of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife at the hearing. The agency is the largest landowner in the affected area of the Housatonic, according to Larson.

“It has been crafted to responsibly address the public health risks while at the same time responsibly maintaining as much as possible the natural and recreational values of this section of the Housatonic,” Larson said. “It has been a difficult balancing act, but is a Housatonic plan and it has our full support.”

In some eco-sensitive or inaccessible areas, remediation would only happen if PCBs levels were 50 ppm or higher, which Valerie Andersen of Pittsfield takes issue with.

“So we’re going to have all these little toxic waste dumps left there,” Andersen said. “Up to 49 parts per million when 50 would be a highly-regulated toxic landfill.”

The plan was released in June and presented at two informational meetingsin Lenox and Kent, Connecticut. It involves active remediation along a 10-mile stretch from Pittsfield to Lenox including sediment removal and capping of PCBs. The remaining 115 miles in southwestern Massachusetts and Connecticut are expected to benefit from work upriver, leaving it to natural controls and long-term monitoring. Charlie Cianfarini is skeptical of those methods.

“Any PCBs left in the river will eventually become dislodged, re-contaminate our communities and flow down to our friends in Connecticut,” Cianfarini said. “It is a gift that I don’t want to give them.”

The plan also leaves room for new technologies and methods. GE is responsible for the cleanup and will submit work and quality of life impact plans subject to EPA approval and public input. EPA’s plan includes taking contaminated sediment out of Berkshire County to a licensed site, preferably by rail. Mass Audubon’s Berkshire sanctuary director Becky Cushing says the community should have a say regarding equipment storage locations, access points and road use.

Mass Audubon calls on GE and EPA to provide for further opportunity for input particularly from affected landowners, the surrounding and downstream communities and other stakeholders such as people who have an interest in recreational uses of the river,” said Cushing.

EPA’s public comment period continues until October 27th. The agency will consider and respond to the comments before submitting a plan to GE. Barring any lengthy appeals, remediation isn’t expected to start for another three to five years.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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