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Environmental groups continue to attack EPA plan for new landfill for Housatonic PCBs

A map of the proposed new landfill near October Mountain near Lenox and Lee.
A draft of the proposed location of the upland disposal facility for PCBs from the Housatonic River.

At an EPA meeting this week, environmental groups lambasted the location of a proposed landfill for toxic materials from the Housatonic River.

The EPA held a virtual meeting Wednesday to update stakeholders on the much disputed cleanup plan it brokered between polluter General Electric and communities along the waterway. A legal effort against the 15-year, $600 million project remains in appeals.

One of the most controversial elements of the plan is the establishment of a new landfill for toxic materials to be sited at the foot of October Mountain by the towns of Lenox and Lee. In the language of the deal, it’s known as the Upland Disposal Facility. Drafts of the proposed landfill were shown at the meeting.

“This is an outrage to the citizens who live close to this area who are all going to be negatively affected in some manner, whether by health effects, whether by lowered property values, and any number of other problems that will arise from this massive TSCA-designed dump that will contain 1.3 million to 1.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. I continue to be stunned that EPA acts as if the appeal process is meaningless. And the arrogance of putting these design plans forward before the public before the appeals processes are exhausted, is unconscionable," said Judy Herkimer of the Connecticut-based Housatonic Environmental Action League. “I just want to comment on the two preexisting dumps: The former municipal landfill, and then the very highly toxic Schweitzer dump that is south of the proposed UDF.”

Herkimer said it took months for the group to get the undigitized records about the two dumps nearby the new proposed facility from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

“The Schweitzer dump is certainly, the constituents in that are very toxic because it came from one of the paper mills and it was the paper mill that did cigarette papers," she said. "And it is currently leaking dioxane at very high levels. I don't know if it's very high, but certainly above threshold, and it's going into a local stream and it goes into a residential area. Further complicating that dump is that a solar farm was allowed to be installed on top of the cap. And with each high water event, the cap is collapsing in places and they have to keep reinforcing it.”

She said the dump has had trouble with its monitoring wells, requiring multiple repairs and at least one replacement.

“The municipal dump is shifting, and it has collapsed, I think, one, maybe two of those monitoring wells there," said Herkimer. "So the whole area, as with any landmass, is changing. It's shifting. It's artificial. They’re both dumps, they’re both unlined.”

Herkimer said the reports bolstered her continued opposition to the new landfill.

“It just defies logic that we're putting another massive dump in the area," she said. "And that was the excuse that was given was that, Oh, well, it's already a post industrial area. Very highly contaminated. Let's just keep going for another century of contamination.”

Charlie Cianfarini of Citizens for PCB Removal agrees.

“We’ve talked about climate change, we've talked about storms, we've talked about groundwater, we've talked about all kinds of things," he said. "But putting anything at the base of a mountain, where there could be a lot of runoff from a unique storm, is just ludicrous. So again, I encourage the EPA to actually stand up with their engineers and go back and say, OK, we were told that we had to consider a dump. Well, OK, we considered it but we don't think that this is appropriate. And don't just let GE push this through.”

The proposed landfill is still far from becoming reality, at least until litigation around the cleanup plan is resolved.

“There’ll be no construction, no remediation, no active construction of the UDF until the appeals are resolved," said Dean Tagliaferro of the EPA. "The process is to continue with all design activities. If the resolution through the appeals to federal court, if it goes there, is still ongoing, there will be no breaking of ground for the UDF.”

Per the cleanup agreement, GE will receive comments on its preliminary plans and any further draft of the landfill design will be subject to another round of public comment.

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.