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GE And EPA Holding Firm On Housatonic Cleanup

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

General Electric is moving forward on dispute resolutions with the EPA, saying the agency’s cleanup plan for the Housatonic River cannot be reconciled. The company dumped PCBs into the waterway from its Pittsfield facility until the chemical was banned in 1977.In a letter this week, GE says the EPA’s 13-year plan costing more than $600 million is inconsistent with criteria laid out in a consent decree signed in 2000 by the company, agency and other parties. GE challenges the need for out-of-state disposal of contaminated sediment and decries the agency’s claim that cost is the reason GE is challenging the plan. Meanwhile, the EPA is holding firm.

March 15 was the deadline for GE to comment on the EPA’s intended remedy for the so-called “rest of river,” a stretch of the Housatonic from Pittsfield to Connecticut. Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox says he’s not surprised GE is refusing to back down.

“Clearly GE’s got deep pockets and they probably more lawyers than the EPA would have on their best day,” Pignatelli said. “I’m just in hopes that the technology is improving and that whenever a final decision is made on what the level of cleanup is, that we treat in place and avoid the landfills entirely in Berkshire County.”

The potential for landfills in Berkshire County, specifically in Lenox, Lee or Housatonic, has many in the area concerned. More than 300 people turned out for a Housatonic River Initiative meeting this week in Great Barrington. Pignatelli was among them. He says those in southern Berkshire County were able to learn from the earlier cleanup immediately around the former GE facility in Pittsfield.

“We were able to see the landfill that they [GE] established in Pittsfield called Hill 78,” Pignatelli said. “So we were able to see what we didn’t want to have happen in our part of the county. Now 15 years later it’s knocking on our door. I think we can learn from what we saw before and try to make the best deal for southern Berkshire County. At the end of the day, my attitude is no landfills anywhere…Housatonic, Lenox or Lee. GE, EPA figure it out. Figure out a way to clean it up in place or figure out how to remove it and get it the hell out of here, much like you’re doing on the Hudson River, shipping it down to Texas.”

The Great Barrington Selectboard issued a statement this week asking GE to clean up the Housatonic and to take responsibility for any material that remains in the river. It also expressed opposition to a landfill in the village of Housatonic, within Great Barrington. The town is one of six central and southern Berkshire communities that have banded together as the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee and secured legal representation to ensure the region’s best interests regarding the cleanup. GE’s January decision to relocate its headquarters in Boston, with the help of financial incentives from the city and state, has raised speculation as to how the move might affect the Housatonic cleanup. Democrat Ben Downing represents Berkshire County in the state senate.

“I have seen nothing that would lead me to believe that the [Gov. Charlie] Baker administration is going to do anything other than make sure that GE lives up to its obligations to make this community whole again,” said Downing.

In its letter, GE says in order to avoid a dispute with the EPA, the company was prepared to undertake a more expansive cleanup than could be required under the consent decree, but could not reach an agreement. Now a designated EPA official is expected to issue 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.

“I would not want to see this get to litigation if for no other reason than, I am not sure what the outcome would be on this,” Downing said. “I think to the extent that we can get certainty when it comes to GE fulfilling its obligations, the better we are.”

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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