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In Washington, GE Disputes EPA's "Rest of the River" Plan

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.

At an Environmental Appeals Board in Washington Thursday, General Electric disputed the EPA’s current plan that calls for the company to pay to remove PCBs from the Housatonic River in Western Massachusetts.  

The EPA has long held that General Electric is responsible for cleaning up the Housatonic River. The company’s transformer manufacturing plant dumped PCBs into the river until the 1970s. The chemicals were used as coolants and insulating fluids at the plant and were banned in 1979.

Housatonic River Initiative Executive Director Tim Gray knows the problem well as the riverkeeper.

“PCBs are one of the worst chemicals on the face of the earth,” Gray says.

Gray says under the plan, GE would spend $613 million over 13 years to remove contaminated sediment and truck it out of state.

GE argues the plan is too costly. The company has said materials dredged from the Housatonic could be cheaply and safely disposed of locally. 

GE has been part of the cleanup since the 1990s – spending more than $500 million to clean the first 2 miles of the river and areas around the shuttered Pittsfield plant.

GE did not respond to requests for comment from WAMC Thursday and Friday.

“And our fear is that they are not taking enough PCBs out of the river and that when they're all done with this cleanup, the river may still be contaminated forever,” Gray says.

At an Environmental Appeals Board in Washington Thursday, the EPA and GE argued for six and a half hours about the proposed "Rest of River" cleanup – which Gray says is a problem because the community doesn’t get a voice there.

“By one stroke of the pen they were going to take this chance for oral argument away from us,” Gray says.

Western Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds says the federal government’s action is unacceptable.

“That is not normal,” Hinds says. “And so, you know, any other administration and I think we would, it would be an opportunity to really dig at the agreement. But unfortunately this administration has demonstrated that it is hostile to the goals of protecting health and environment and including local town and resident views.”

Congressman Richard Neal echoed Hinds, saying he hopes conflict between GE and the EPA does not delay clean-up for another decade.

“Everyone agrees that the effort to clean-up the Housatonic River must continue. But as I have consistently said, if GE and the EPA cannot find common ground, and this issue ends up in court, a decision could be delayed for another decade. And this is a process that started when Silvio Conte represented the Berkshires in the 1970’s. I would once again remind the interested parties that we all desire perfection but we are hopefully going to end up with what’s possible. We simply can’t put off cleaning the rest of the river for another generation,” Neal says.

In a statement, the EPA says Administrator Scott Pruitt “is concerned about the slow pace of cleanups of contaminated sites.” In short, Pruitt says he wants to work with affected communities, elected leaders and GE to speed up the process. 

But a May 31st memo said due to a change in direction from EPA leadership – namely Pruitt’s appointment – the agency wanted to delay the hearing for 90 days to negotiate with GE. Pruitt had said he would take personal charge of cleanups costing more than $50 million.

Former EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, now a WAMC commentator, says while she did not work on the Housatonic project, the memo does not come as a surprise. 

“EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has already distinguished himself as the most anti-environmental EPA administrator in the agency’s history,” Enck says. “It is not a surprise that he would slow things down.”

The Berkshire Eagle reports at no point did the EPA or GE mention the memo during the hearing, which Enck says is for good reason. 

“The Environmental Appeals Board is made up of career professionals who objectively look at disputes. They are fully capable of doing their job. In fact, I question why the political appointees at EPA would even be involved in any kind of Environmental Appeals Board review,” Enck says.

Enck says the PCB contamination is a health threat and needs to be remediated as soon as possible. The EPA contends the plan will leave PCBs in the river, but still meet agency health standards.

But Gray from the Housatonic River Initiative says there is no such thing as a safe level of PCBs.

“The studies basically say three miles on either side of the river that you may be breathing in PCBs,” Grey says.

Gray says exposure to PCBs can cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine system, and impact hormone levels.

“They are very, very toxic,” Gray says. “And they’re… the thing that a lot of people don’t know about them is that they are one of the most persistent chemicals in the environment.”

The Housatonic River Initiative has called on Pruitt and the EPA to extend the removal of PCBs beyond what the permit requires.

Former EPA Region 1 Administrator Curt Spalding told WAMC last year that this plan is structurally sound.

“I think we all need to recognize that there are differences of points of view across the full spectrum of issues that this remedy addresses,” Spaulding says.

Gray says the current plan only solves a third of the problem.

“What needs to be done is a good clean up, the best cleanup we can get,” Gray says.

The Housatonic River runs nearly 150 miles from Western Massachusetts through Connecticut to Long Island Sound.

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