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After failed appeal, EPA approves final permit for controversial Housatonic cleanup

The Housatonic River in Lee, Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
The Housatonic River in Lee, Massachusetts.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the final permit for a 15-year, $600 million cleanup of the Housatonic River that faces some local opposition.

The cleanup plan, brokered between General Electric and communities along the river, was announced in February 2020.

GE’s legacy in Berkshire County is a bitter one, from the pollution the company left in the region’s land and water to the economic devastation that followed layoffs and plant closures in the 1980s.

The new effort will be the first major remediation of GE’s pollution of the Berkshire County waterway in decades.

“There had been one tranche that had been done in Pittsfield, and this is the rest of the river south of Pittsfield, in which we're requiring them to clean up the river, to remove the PCBs that are in the river, and to reduce the risks to families, to thee communities along the river, and to basically hold them accountable for the pollution and the damage that they've done to the ecosystem along the Housatonic,” said New England EPA Regional Administrator David Cash.

The mammoth cleanup project has inspired its share of opposition, mostly concerning the creation of a new landfill for toxic materials in Lee. Cash insists that it’s a vocal minority.

“Municipalities all along the Housatonic have agreed to this have been participants in crafting this outcome," he told WAMC. "And compared to 10 years ago and longer, there's an enormous amount of agreement that the steps that we have that are ensconced in this permit are exactly the right way that we should be moving forward to get the kind of environmental protection that we need and the kind of benefits to the communities that they will get as this cleanup happens.”

EPA New England Superfund Program Director Bryan Olson maintains that the new landfill will be safe and secure despite concerns lodged by critics.

“People are exposed to those sediments and floodplain soils, people are walking on this floodplain soil," he said. "They're potentially wading into the river, they're eating the fish in the river. We need to take those sediments and put them in a safe place. And to be clear, the highest level sediments will be sent off site outside of Massachusetts to landfill outside of Massachusetts, the lower level sediments, which there are a lot of, will be placed in the Lee consolidation area.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes after an unsuccessful legal challenge from two local environmental groups, the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League. In February, the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board rejected their motion to reconsider the permit.

“We expected them to rule against us because we're suing EPA," said Tim Gray of the HRI. “The EPA judges in this court, of course they're going to be on EPA’s side. We knew this all along, and we knew that the only chance we really have is in federal court in the First Circuit in Boston. And we said that right from day one, the beginning. And unfortunately, they make you go through this whole long court process of a year and a half, almost two years just to go through that whole EAB court process, which led to nothing. We believe the EAB is- They're just a puppet court of the EPA.”

With the failed appeal behind them, Gray says the HRI’s lawyers are now heading to federal court.

“It's our one shot to get in front of an independent judge,” he told WAMC.

Cash says the EPA isn’t concerned about another round of litigation.

“An appeal will not slow this process down unless a court tells us to stop, and we don't think that's going to happen," he said. "So, General Electric is putting in place its plans for the cleanup, and all of our monitoring and assessment of the success of that cleanup will be put in place. And we have every reason to believe that this will move forward with all due speed and with all the speed that the communities along the Housatonic deserve.”

The EPA’s announcement about its approval of the final permit included endorsements from top ranking state leaders like Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren as well as Congressman Richard Neal, all Democrats.

“First of all, Richie Neal has taken a ton of money from General Electric," Gray told WAMC. "We were shocked that Mr. Markey came out in favor of this dump. Shame on him. Elizabeth Warren hasn't really said much about anything on this issue, so.”

Local politicians have also backed the cleanup, including 4th Berkshire District State Representative Smitty Pignatelli and Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.

Gray says morale remains high among opponents to the plan.

“There would be no cleanup at all if it wasn't for the Housatonic River Initiative," he said. "And the bottom line is, we're proud of what we accomplished there. And if these people, such as the EPA, the local politicians, and everybody, thinks that a toxic dump in the Berkshires is a good idea, they need to have their heads examined, I think, you know, because I- you know, actually, you know what, I know this won't make the tape, but you know, the joke I always say is there may be proof here that PCBs affect the brain.”

For Gray, who’s spent decades advocating for the Housatonic, this is just another bump in a long road.

“I don't give a shit," he told WAMC. "You know, at this point, it's a war, you know what I mean? I'm just, we're just fighting for our little town and fighting for Lenoxdale, and, and it just sucks what they're doing to us, you know.”

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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