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Housatonic River Cleanup Back And Forth Continues

This is a picture of a stretch of the Housatonic River undergoing remediation in 2012.
Berkshire Environmental Action Team
A stretch of the Housatonic River undergoing remediation in 2012.

The back and forth between the Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric over the cleanup of the Housatonic River continues. In the latest move, the company is railing against the agency’s remediation proposal.In a letter to the EPA, the $130 billion company says the benefits of the agency’s intended cleanup plan are overstated and cost considerations are ignored. The EPA is pursuing a 13-year effort to actively remediate about 10 miles of the Housatonic River from Pittsfield south costing more than $600 million. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from GE’s Pittsfield facility leaked into the river until the chemical was banned in 1977. GE says the EPA’s requirement that the company transport 1 million cubic yards of contaminated soil out-of-state cannot be reconciled. GE argues the move will not protect human and environmental health any more than on-site disposal in a secure site, but will cost a quarter of a billion dollars more. Jim Murphy is with the EPA.

“We crafted the best solution that we could,” Murphy said. “I think we’ve achieved an optimal remedy. There are a number of selection and decision criteria that we have to meet and we think we optimized across of those criteria.”

Citing the EPA’s own model, GE says the removal of 340,000 cubic yards of sediment from Woods Pond in Lenox would cost $130 million more than removing 44,000 cubic yards and capping the pond with no added environmental benefit. GE, the EPA and a number other area agencies signed a consent decree in 2000 placing the financial burden of cleaning the Housatonic and its banks on the company. GE says the EPA’s remedy violates the decree. Murphy says the EPA plans to issue a formal response by the end of February.

“There’s obviously a difference of opinion and we’ll respond in our formal document,” said Murphy.

Some environmentalists have even bashed the EPA’s plan, saying it does not do enough. The EPA says it would remove roughly 90 percent of the PCBs that flow in the 10-mile stretch. 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. Tim Grey of the Housatonic Clean River Coalition said in Octoberafter public comments were considered that the plan falls short.

“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.”

The EPA’s most extensive cleanup plan called for removing 2 million cubic yards of material, taking 52 years and costing $1 billion. Murphy says the current plan is even less aggressive than what GE proposed at one point.

“There’s a lot more that we could have proposed to take out, but we are thinking of treating some of it with activated carbon to reduce bioavailability works and then capping other areas can work,” Murphy explained. “We really haven’t pleased people on either side of that argument I know, but looking at all the criteria we think our remedy is the right one.”

In the letter, General Electric says it hopes to reach a common-sense solution for the Housatonic River that the company would implement without the need for further dispute resolution proceedings. GE is expected to respond to the EPA’s rebuttal by mid-March before the deadline for informal mediation discussions. From there the agency would issue a binding decision which could open an appeal process that might make its way into the courts.

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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