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Lee Town Meeting Will Address Controversial Landfill For Housatonic Pollutants

A sign nailed to a tree warns people to not eat animals from the Housatonic River
Josh Landes

Lee, Massachusetts will hold its annual town meeting Thursday at 5 p.m. at the middle and high school football field. On the docket are a number of articles that directly address the controversial cleanup plan reached in 2020 between General Electric, the Environmental Protection Agency, and communities along the Housatonic River, including Lee. Berkshire Edge reporter Jacob Robbins says the gathering comes at a particularly tense time for the community, with local petitioners pressing the town government to exit the agreement. Robbins spoke with WAMC.

ROBBINS: Select board member Bob Jones, who was recently elected in a landslide against 12 year incumbent David Consolati, was a part of a lawsuit against the town. He is now pulled out of that lawsuit as a plaintiff, and in last week's select board meeting, he made a motion that would have asked the town to pursue warrant articles 10 and 1, passed at last year's town meeting that essentially would pay a lawyer to begin the process of rescinding the agreement. And that motion failed two to one, and so the setup for this week's annual town meeting is still lots of frustration on behalf of the town meeting reps and also from the people in the town of Lee that the Select board isn't following through on their demands to do something about this dump.

WAMC: Now, the other two select board members who chose to not back Jones- Did they offer a reasoning for not pursuing those warrant articles passed last year?

Patricia Carlino, who is now the chair of the select board, she actually is a defendant in the lawsuit that Jones was a part of, and she's a longtime incumbent as well. And she actually was one of the original signers of the agreement. And she feels like it's the best deal that the town of Lee can possibly get, and she's standing by that now. Now, the other select board member, it's a different, interesting story. Shawn Regnier defeated incumbent Thomas Wickham in 2020, vowing to rescind the agreement and he has now since reneged on that pledge. And his whole reasoning is he doesn't want there to be any kind of legal ramifications. They just don't know what would happen if they pull out of the agreement. And he also is of the mindset that this is potentially the best deal that the town of Lee can get right now. And he has instead proposed an oversight committee that would make sure, that would monitor GE’s dredging of PCBs from the Housatonic River and also look into alternative technologies that would be cleaner and also wouldn't involve a dump.

Looking at the warrant for this week's town meeting, are there any articles on it that directly address the landfill and the select board's recent actions around it?

There are actually four direct article warrants all brought forward by citizens’ petitions that directly address the PCB dump. There's- Article 18 proposes a bylaw amendment that essentially bans the storage, burial or incineration of any materials deemed hazardous or radioactive by the EPA. So that would include PCBs. Article 19 asks the town to appropriate $50,000 to train so-called ‘citizen scientists’ to monitor and report the level of PCBs in the Housatonic River. And Article 20 insists that the town work towards making it so that rail transport is the primary mode of removal of PCB materials from the Berkshires. And really, I think the most interesting one is Article 21, which essentially asked the town to put a referendum on the ballot that asks the select board to rescind their approval of this agreement. And so there's four main articles, warrant articles that directly address the PCB dump landfill.

Now, tensions have been running high for some time now. Looking into Thursday, how do you think this is going to play out with the tensions running as high as they haven't Lee for months and months at this point?

I think, Josh, I think we're really headed for potentially more of the same. I think the tensions are incredibly high. And there is a, there seemingly is a disconnect between the select board and the public. There is overwhelming support amongst the community, for them to do something about this agreement. And the select board is just unable to reach a consensus about what to do now. There's a recall effort going on right now for Sean Regnier. People are very upset about him. And so, you know, there could be some words said about that at the meeting. But right now, I think we're in for more of the same, more frustration and more wheel spinning and, you know, until potentially there's either a different makeup or somebody changes their mind.

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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