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GE Reviewing Updated EPA Housatonic River Plan, Environmentalists Say It Falls Short

Berkshire Environmental Action Team
A stretch of the Housatonic River undergoing remediation in 2012.

The Environmental Protection Agency has updated its cleanup plan for the Housatonic River, which was contaminated by chemicals from Pittsfield’s General Electric facility.In September, the EPA notified GE of its intended final decision regarding the cleanup of the Housatonic River. As outlined in June 2014, the federal agency wants GE to pursue a 13-year, $613 million effort for the so-called “Rest of the River” portion extending more than 100 miles south of Pittsfield. General Electric’s Pittsfield plant dumped polychlorinated biphenyls into the river from the 1930s until the chemical was banned in 1977. The EPA’s Jim Murphy says the intended final decision is really a tune-up of June’s plan based on public comments.

“We added some provisions to enhance coordination with some of the impacted municipalities and landowners when we’re doing the design and construction,” Murphy said. “Some of the additional laws and regulations that could apply to the cleanup — we waived some of those that we thought were not practical to the construction that we anticipate.”

Additionally, the EPA modified provisions governing future work and uses of the river and its floodplains.

“In the original proposal we had essentially said that GE would have to work with other parties that are doing the work,” Murphy explained.  “For example, that could be addressing PCBs behind one of the dams that we have identified that there’s potential exposure. Now we’re essentially saying that GE should really just go address those PCBs right now instead of waiting for some other party to address it and then figuring out the cost for GE. So it’s a really more active approach than it was before.”

The plan calls for active remediation along a 10-mile stretch from Pittsfield to Lenox removing 1 million cubic yards of contaminated material and capping of PCBs. The remaining 115 miles in southwestern Massachusetts and Connecticut are expected to benefit from work upriver and are being left to natural controls and long-term monitoring. The EPA says it would remove roughly 90 percent of the PCBs that flow in the 10-mile stretch. Tim Grey of the Housatonic Clean River Coalition says even after adjustments based on the public comments, the plan does not do enough.

“The point being is we have one chance in history to get our river cleaned up to the point that maybe somebody our grandchildren will be able to use this river for fishing and boating without getting exposure to PCBs,” Grey said. “And it’s our chance right now because we think EPA will never be back here again to make another decision. So if we let this decision stand it pretty much will leave the Housatonic River contaminated, probably forever.”

Grey says the coalition, which is made up of environmental groups from Pittsfield down to the Long Island Sound, is thinking about challenging the purposed permit. The EPA says its most extensive cleanup plan would remove 2 million cubic yards of material, take 52 years and cost $1 billion.

Under a federal consent decree signed in 2000, GE is financially responsible for damage to the Housatonic River and its banks.

GE has until October 30th to dispute the EPA’s plan. If the company does not, the EPA can issue a final permit. If nothing is significantly changed, there will be no formal public comment period. States, municipalities and those who issued comments after June’s plan was released can appeal.  After the permit is issued, GE still has to design how the work will be carried out. The EPA doesn’t expect work to begin for at least two years. In a statement, GE says it will carefully review the EPA’s intended final decision regarding the Housatonic River.

“We look forward to working with EPA toward a common sense solution for the Rest of River that protects human health and the environment as well as complies with the Pittsfield – Housatonic Consent Decree approved by the federal court,” the statement reads.

Earlier this week, GE said it completed its sixth and final year of dredging the upper Hudson River also contaminated by PCBs over protests from environmental groups.

Click here for more information on the EPA's intended cleanup plan.

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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