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EPA Signs Final Permit For Housatonic Cleanup Plan With Controversial Landfill

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.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it has finalized its controversial cleanup plan for the Housatonic River, Berkshire County’s main waterway.

The cleanup plan was brokered between the EPA and corporate polluter General Electric between communities along the river, and would be the first major effort to remediate the Housatonic in decades. Since being announced in February, the 15-year, $576 million plan to remove toxic waste dumped into the river by GE from a plant in Pittsfield over the mid-20th century has prompted protest.

“The EPA, GE and town selectmen have conducted secretive backroom negotiation over a two-year period," said county resident C. Mathias, who expressed frustration with the plan during a September virtual public comment session, specifically the lack of a public referendum and the creation of a new landfill for low-level toxic waste in Lee. “The EPA is in cahoots with GE and their lawyers, pitted the selectmen of each town against each other using scare tactics," said Mathias. "The least educated from Lee got the short end of the stick, the toxic PCB dump, after you dangled a golden carrot of dollar signs in front of them. Great Barrington no longer gets a dump, but instead a 149-yard park on top of polluted land. Pittsfield gets land donated to them and a takedown of buildings plus $8 million. The citizens that live in these towns did not get to vote on putting a dump in the Berkshires and in their backyards.”

EPA New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel says he signed the final draft of the permit plan on Wednesday.

“We made a few technical changes, made some clarification, added some clarification in terms of language," he told WAMC. "We emphasized that we’re looking for innovative approaches to PCB cleanup in terms of a challenge program. Otherwise, the final permit is pretty much similar to what the draft looked like.”

The 143-page document is accompanied by a 140-page response to public comment. Superfund and Emergency Management Division Director Bryan Olson says local concerns about the new landfill in Lee were heard loud and clear by the EPA.

“We are very confident and sure that this will be safe," he told WAMC. "However, we need to monitor the system and have that whole system be transparent such that the community also feels like it’s safe as we’re moving forward. So there’s monitoring of air, there’s monitoring of groundwater, there’s monitoring of soil around the landfill, there’s monitoring of surface water. All that will be combined to prove that there is no exposure as a result of the work that’s going on there.”

He says the biggest issue the agency faces is moving the material into the landfill, which will present the risk of air exposure to the toxic chemicals.

“But even that, we’ve looked at it and it’s very – the risks associated with that are very minimal as compared to the risks that are currently sitting in the river as we’re waiting to get this job done,” said Olson.

Starting on January 4th, there is a 30-day period where the permit can be appealed – which would trigger a formal appeals process if a challenge to the plan is filed.

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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