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EPA Rest Of River Plan Receives Rocky Reception In Pittsfield

People hold colorful signs while sitting in rows of auditorium seats
Josh Landes
Protestors in the crowd at the March 5th, 2020 EPA Rest of River cleanup meeting at Herberg Middle School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Last night, a meeting in Pittsfield about the Environmental Protection Agency-mediated Rest Of River agreement for the cleanup of the Housatonic River devolved into chaos.

The meeting was held by the city at Herberg Middle School to explain the terms of the plan announced in Lenox on February 10th. Its proponents say that the cleanup – to be carried out by corporate polluter General Electric south of its former plant in Pittsfield – will finally address the issue of PCBs in both the Housatonic and Woods Pond in Lenox, which have gone unaddressed for decades, while putting money into the pockets of communities along the river. But its critics – who focus largely on the creation of a new low-level toxic materials landfill in Lee that the cleanup includes – made themselves heard loudly in the auditorium at the last of three public meetings about the plan.

"All our politicians are selling us out!" yelled one crowd member.

“It’s important for people to be able say what they need to say, but it’s also important for us to hear it and listen," said Bryan Olson of the EPA, who handled the contentious question and answer portion, and was speaking with furious county residents long after the two-hour meeting concluded.

“For this particular issue, the most common misconception is that they’re better off having the PCBs – 40% of them – sitting in Woods Pond as opposed to sequestering them into a low-level material into this type of landfill," he told WAMC. "That’s, to me, the most common misconception. All the potential exposure is happening now, when once we’re able to get it into this landfill or consolidation unit, there will be no exposure anymore.”

Olson addressed one of the most common themes of the protest against the plan – the fact that much of the mediation that lead to its creation was carried out in secret between the agency and GE.

“Most of the work that EPA does with responsible parties is behind closed doors," said Olson. "And it’s because there’s potential for litigation and we don’t want them to use what we say against us, that’s the real reason. Because if we offer something up in a public setting and then they can use it against us. In the mediation, they can’t do that – they’ve signed a document that says anything that happens in mediation they can’t use against us later on.”

But to protestors, the aura of secrecy and the concession on the landfill in Lee represent an unforgivable betrayal. For some Pittsfielders, the repercussions of GE’s pollution are still an open wound. Hill 78, a toxic waste dump in the city by a public school, is a reminder of the corporation’s legacy on the community of around 43,000.

“My initial foray into this was living next to the Allendale School yard, and I was told that the school didn’t have anything in it, and it ended up did," said John Nalepa. “You sacrificed lives living with this stuff. People worked with this stuff, and there’s a lot of cancer research that says these things are very toxic.”

Tim Gray is executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, the environmental activist group that dropped out of the mediation process in protest before the plan was unveiled.

“If you’ve been at the three meetings, what you see is that every single meeting they try to make it so long so that the people who want to start asking questions on the microphone don’t get a chance," said Gray. "Again, tonight, it’s happened again where a few people got to answer but there were people left on line, and they don’t let us speak. They cut us off. So these meetings have been very controlled by the people that have approved this dump in our towns, and we’re outraged that they’re conducting these meetings like this, because they’re only telling one side of the story.”

In addition to the landfill, Gray says the plan allows for too many PCBs to be left in the river and Woods Pond. He wants the chemicals in the water to be treated in place without requiring the kind of protracted public works project the new cleanup calls for.

“All around the world they’re treating PCBs, okay, and we wouldn’t even have the need for the dump if we were to treat them and render them harmless," said Gray. "So if we render them harmless, it’s so much of a better deal because in the end there’s no dump, and we’ve gotten rid of them for good!”

Gray says the HRI’s opposition to the plan is just beginning.

“We intend to fight this and people now are starting to say that they will come and they will sit in front of the trucks and chain themselves to the bulldozers,” he said.

Olson of the EPA says the agency will be issuing a draft permit by Memorial Day, and that the public will have plenty of opportunity to continue to weigh in on the plan.

“The draft permit is really the cleanup plan which will include all this stuff," he said. "We will put it up for public comment probably 45 to 60 days, at minimum 45 days. There will be public hearings, there will be a public meeting, informational meeting, similar to this one. We will be describing what our proposal is at that time. And then we will make a decision at the end of – we’ll actually respond to every single public comment and then we’ll make a decision.”

For more information on the Rest Of River cleanup plan, click here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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