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EPA Sticking By Cleanup Plan In Face Of GE Challenges

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 Environmental Protection Agency is not backing away from its cleanup plans for the Housatonic River in the face of challenges by General Electric.The EPA released a statement of position this week saying the agency has made the right decision for cleanup by following a consent decree regarding river remediation that was signed by GE and a number of parties in 2000. The statement is in response to GE’s claims that the benefits of the cleanup plan are overstated and cost considerations are ignored. The company worth $130 billion made those charges in January.

“We crafted the best solution that we could,” said the EPA's Jim Murphy. “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.”

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. Tim Gray is the Housatonic Riverkeeper and member of the EPA’s Citizen Coordinating Council for the waterway.

“This kind of arrogance by a corporation that can basically say to EPA ‘We have no responsibility in cleaning up this,’” Gray said. “They call it ‘Don’t destroy the river to clean it’ but what destroyed the river is their PCBs. Basically what they’re saying is that ‘We [GE] should have the right to disavow all that and not do any sort of a cleanup.’ We’re outraged by their arrogance and we’re very glad that EPA is at least taking a tough stand.”

GE says it is reviewing EPA’s statement on the so-called Rest of River remedy. Via email the company says it “remains committed to a common sense solution for the Housatonic that is fully protective of human health and the environment, does not result in unnecessary destruction of the surrounding habitat, and is cost effective.”  GE says EPA’s proposed remedy fails to achieve these goals.

One of the specific cost concerns GE has cited is taking 1 million cubic yards of contaminated river sediment to an out-of-state site. The company 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. So GE is proposing three potential dump sites in Lenox, Lee and Housatonic. Gray, who has pushed the EPA to go even further in its cleanup plans, says he and other environmentalists are concerned about this.

“We have never believed that the final decision by EPA and the state saying that there would be no dumps would stand,” Gray said. “Because GE’s lawyers we knew they’re good and that they would fight this notion and that they should be able to dump their crap in dumps all along the Housatonic River. That’s outrageous.”

GE now has the opportunity to reply by March 15th. From there a designated EPA official issues a binding decision to which either party or other stakeholders can appeal in the agency’s Environmental Appeals Board. If the parties disagree with the board’s ruling the case could enter federal court. Gray, who has been working to remediate the Housatonic since the 1970s, expects the back and forth to end up in appeals court at the very least. He says the EPA could declare the area a Superfund site.

“This is the law that gives EPA some real power to make a corporation that is defying the charge by the EPA to clean up,” said Gray.

Urging that its plans should be upheld, the EPA writes “that EPA - not GE - is in the best position to judge the appropriate level of analysis for selecting a remedy for the Rest of River that is in the public interest and protective of human health and the environment.”

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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