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Housatonic Cleanup Q&A Session Underscores Ongoing Opposition To EPA Plan

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

A public Q&A session with the EPA last night about the controversial Housatonic River cleanup plan last night underscored ongoing frustration among Berkshire County residents. WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes has more.

The EPA signed the final draft of the plan it brokered between corporate polluter General Electric and communities along the river south of its former plant in Pittsfield in December. Despite that, frustration and concerns around the 15-year, almost $600 million project persist in Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield. Environmental groups like the Housatonic River Initiative quickly pledged to appeal the plan in court, and the town of Lee – where a new landfill for toxic materials would be built – has been roiling with complaints from residents to elected officials over the deal. At Wednesday night’s quarterly Citizens Coordinating Council meeting, EPA representatives like Dean Tagliaferro answered questions about the cleanup – like concerns that the landfill would contaminate local groundwater.

“So, there's groundwater elevations," Taliaferro explained. "When you measure a well or surface water, you'll get a groundwater elevation. And similar to surface water, it's going to flow from high areas of groundwater elevation to low. The wells in this area from the landfills, and from some borings done by GE, and the Housatonic River, show the groundwater from the disposal area, it's going to flow as it usually does, towards the river. So it's going to go this way from east to west, away from the reservoirs. So the groundwater in this area goes from the disposal area towards the river. That's why we don't think there's a risk to the drinking water source for the town of Lee.”

Wells within 500 feet of the landfill are required to be monitored by GE, though homeowners are not required to accept the monitoring.

The EPA’s Bryan Olson addressed a question about how and by what means and routes all toxic materials culled from the river for disposal outside of Lee would be taken from the town.

“EPA’s goal is to do everything we can to not impact the community," he said. "By moving these trucks, obviously, there's going to be some impact to the community. But our, what our expectation is that we're going to try and create truck routes that have the least impact. And not only we're going to talk to the town, we're going to talk to the people who are most impacted by this the people who live close by the people who live along potential routes. And frankly, we're going to try and avoid those places if we can.”

But no amount of explanation could quell the anger from some Berkshire residents about the plan, announced just over a year ago.

“The problem that we're having is the citizens of Lee do not want a dump in Lee, at Woods Pond, nor do we want a dump anywhere else in the Berkshires," said Lee resident Bob Jones, chairman of Citizens Against The PCB Dump. He said the group is preparing to sue town leaders over agreeing to the cleanup plan.

“We believe that the whole process was flawed," said Jones. "The board of selectmen in Lee had no right to make a decision. Three people actually made the decision while only one attended the actual negotiations, three people made the decision for a town of 6,000 people that there was going to be a PCB dump in a neighborhood in Lee.”

Correction: We reported a virtual meeting about the Housatonic River cleanup plan was organized by the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. It was in fact one of the Citizens Coordinating Council meetings organized by the Consensus Building Institute for the EPA.

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