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As Comment Period Ends, EPA Remedy For Housatonic Faces Criticism

Berkshire Environmental Action Team

General Electric disagrees with the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup plan for the contaminated Housatonic River. The company argues the proposal goes against EPA precedents, causing unnecessary destruction to the river’s ecosystem and the lives of people living nearby.The strongly-worded 128-page document was filed October 27, the final day for public comment on EPA’s proposal. GE says the 13-year; $613 million plan is unlikely to result in consensus.

Under a federal consent decree reached in 2000, GE is required to mitigate impacts to the Housatonic River watershed caused by the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the waterway at the company’s Pittsfield plant. The substance was banned in 1977.

Negotiations between EPA, GE, Massachusetts and Connecticut broke down in the past few years as they tried to reach a consensus for what’s known as the Rest of River. In its comments, GE says it was ready to “undertake one of the largest river cleanups in history.”

The EPA released its plan in June. 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. EPA project spokesman Jim Murphy described the plan after its release.

“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.”

In a statement to WAMC News, GE says it offered to implement out-of-state disposal, even though the company isn’t required to under the consent decree, before EPA terminated discussions. In its formal comment, GE says EPA’s plan to transport 1 million cubic yards off-site could be more disruptive to the environment and people living nearby than on-site disposal and cost the company nearly a quarter billion dollars more. Contending EPA’s plan calls for more dredging, traffic and clear-cutting than smaller remedies already rejected by the state of Massachusetts, GE says it is committed to a common sense solution for the Housatonic.

GE’s view that the remedy would cause more harm is in contrast to comments heard at a public hearing held in Lenox in September. Like others, Barbara Cianfarini, who is with the group Citizens for PCB Removal, called for more PCBs to be taken out of the river.

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

UMass Amherst environmental conservation professor emeritus Joseph Larson spoke at that hearing on behalf of the board of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The agency is the largest landowner in the affected area of the Housatonic, according to Larson.

“It has been a difficult balancing act, but it is a Housatonic plan and it has our full support,” said Larson.

Murphy says EPA has received about 125 comments and plans to respond over the next few months before submitting a plan directly to GE. Barring any lengthy appeals, remediation isn’t expected to start for another three to five years.

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