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Veteran Housatonic Activists Lambast EPA At Public Hearing On Cleanup Plan

A wide river is flanked by banks covered in grass and trees
Josh Landes
The Housatonic River, as seen from Bridge Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

At an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing Tuesday night, Berkshire County residents and activists made their displeasure with the proposed Housatonic River cleanup plan clear.

The plan to remove PCBs put into the river by General Electric over the 20th century from a Pittsfield, Massachusetts plant marks the first step forward with a comprehensive cleanup in over two decades. The multimillion dollar 13-year “Rest of River” project would see toxic waste removed from the river, with higher level materials taken out of state and lower level materials put into a new landfill in Lee. Since it was announced in February, the agreement negotiated by the EPA between GE and communities along the county’s main waterway has been bitterly protested. Many public officials said the deal was the best option for a resolution, but hecklers took to in-person hearings this winter, and at Tuesday night’s virtual public comment session, a community organizer with decades of river advocacy efforts to his name aired biting criticism of the deal.

“I want to echo that there’s been no public meeting on this, that the selectmen have hid this from us. They signed it behind our back. And I have to say, that EPA stands by and watches the towns do that, so you’re really complicit in this assault on the town of Lee and the other towns," said Housatonic River Initiative Executive Director Tim Gray. He founded the group in 1992, and has been involved in investigating General Electric’s pollution of the waterway since the mid-70s.

“We’re basing this whole cleanup on very old data," said Gray. "And the EPA really doesn’t know how many PCBs are in the river. There’s no way to calculate midnight dumping, as we know they midnight dumped for 30 or 40 years at the GE plant. And you’re basing your figures on figures that are really unknown. If you remember in 1993, you told us that there was 46,000 pounds in the river. EPA and the Mass DEP told us that, that that was definitive. And guess what, we were able to prove that there’s more than a million and a half pounds just from 3% lossage at the plant.”

Gray says the EPA hasn’t explored alternative technologies as a means of addressing the pollution.

“We had two companies that back around 2004, 2005, two companies were offering us free testing," he said. "They were sure their products could clean up the PCBs, and you people ignored us. They offered free testing to come here and use their own companies’ money to test for us. This was brought to the CCC, you knew all about it, and you did nothing. You ignored it. So we never got to do those things. Well guess what? I talked to the CEO again yesterday, and he’s still willing to do that test. So why don’t you get off your duffs and do what you’re supposed to do under Superfund, which is look at new technologies?”

Gray drew attention to the EPA’s call for privately-owned wells around the proposed landfill to be decommissioned.

“They must be worried about those wells could eventually be contaminated, otherwise there’s no reason to decommission them,” said Gray.

He concluded by excoriating the plan for the landfill’s location at the foot of October Mountain by the also PCB-polluted Woods Pond just north of downtown Lee.

“This dump is located in a sandpit," said Gray. "That whole mountainside is a sandpit with water flowing through it. You’re putting the dump up a thousand feet up the hill from the river, which is absolutely absurd. So if this thing ever does leak, it’s going to go right back into the river we’re trying to clean up. This toxic dump is near hundreds of homes, small schools and the Lee water supply.”

The EPA did not respond to comments at the virtual hearing, where attendance maxed out. Gray closed his remarks by noting the agency’s struggles to accommodate those who wished to speak out against the plan.

“That means you can’t even handle the people tonight of people that would like to comment and you’re going to force them into some other way to try to comment, making it as hard as you can for people to make comments,” he said.

One longtime activist who weighed in on the cleanup plan was Judy Herkimer, co-founder and executive director of the Housatonic Environmental Action League.

“We are a tristate conservation and advocacy 501c3 NGO working for almost 30 years towards a real protective removal action of GE’s PCBs and other toxic contaminants of concern in the river and beyond,” she said.

Herkimer said the “Rest Of River” cleanup proposal didn’t meet the EPA’s own criteria for a protective river and watershed.

“There is no cleanup at this site, only containment of toxic substances with rugs in the river, capping galore, dumps in the watershed, dumps out of state, riprap along contaminated riverbanks, sheet piling to hold massive amounts of PCBs from reaching the river – those are all containments, tucking PCBs in all available areas, sweeping bits under plastic rugs, capping them in the river and floodplain. Cleanup indicates absolute removal of the PCBs and other COCs,” she said.

Like Tim Gray before her, Herkimer’s criticism homed in on the new landfill the plan calls for.

“The proposed upland disposal facility on the Lee/Lenoxdale border is one of the most outrageous, tragic and reckless actions ever proposed at this site," said Herkimer. "The dumpsite is immediately up gradient from the river to an elevation of 1,050 feet. The site’s substrate and bedrock are thoroughly altered from years of sand and gravel mining, including multiple borings and along with bedrock and marble layer cracks.”

The United States Geological Survey defines a substrate as “a surface (or volume) of sediment or rock where physical, chemical, and biological processes occur, such as the movement and deposition of sediment, the formation of bedforms, and the attachment, burrowing, feeding, reproduction, and sheltering of organisms.”

“Two layers of thick black saranwrap placed under 1.3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and soils is a perfect storm in the making for failures to occur with leaks entering the substrate, surrounding surface areas, perhaps Lee’s lower reservoir, groundwater and into the river, Woods Pond, domestic wells, residences, any aquifers, and any number of other migration endpoints,” continued Herkimer.

Herkimer said that ever-increasing byproducts of climate change also pose a risk to the site.

“In addition to the geologic anomalies and in combination with climate uncertainty and increasing 100+ year storms and flooding events, the potential is real for the integrity of this toxic dump to be breached,” she said.

Outside of leaking into the neighboring land and water, Herkimer said, toxic chemicals could also proliferate from the site as a vapor.

“Volatized PCBs become airborne, reach higher currents and are transported throughout the globe with an emphasis to settling in the Arctic areas," she said. "Some of the highest levels ever discovered of PCBs in women, children and whales, seals, walrus and polar bear have been found in the Arctic where no PCB industrial application was ever present.”

Citing decades of litigation and community frustration around the EPA’s efforts to remove PCBs from the Hudson River, Herkimer said history would soon repeat itself with the proposed plan for the Housatonic.

“EPA’s creation of yet another sacrifice zone in a lower socio-economic residential community close to schools, home schools, daycares, young families, domestic wells, people living their lives, recreating, will not be tolerated by many of the NGO advocacy groups," she said. "This proposed dump is an exploitation of people in neighborhoods who have little ability to flee.”

Of the almost 60 speakers who registered to comment at the virtual meeting, all were opposed to the cleanup plan. For more information on how to submit statements about the plan to the EPA before the public comment period closes Friday, 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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