The Environmental Protection Agency is soliciting public feedback on modifications to its landmark plan to clean up the Housatonic River in Berkshire County.
The new cleanup plan would be the first major work done on the river – contaminated by a General Electric plant in Pittsfield throughout the 20th century – in two decades. The EPA announced the agreement made between communities along the river, the corporate polluter, and the federal agency in February.
“So what EPA’s proposed are modifications to the cleanup plan for what’s referred to as the Rest of River portion of the Housatonic River which we think will result in a faster, more comprehensive cleanup activity in the river and the floodplain and a safe, protective proposal of all the excavated PCB material," said EPA New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel.
GE disposed of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the region’s main waterway starting in the 1930s. PCBs were banned in 1977. The company undertook a partial cleanup in Pittsfield in 2000, but no work has been done since to address the polluted river south of the city.
“We issued a permit back in 2016," said Deziel. "We had a lot of back and forth including some court cases. This modified permit is the redline strikeout version of the 2016 version based on the settlement agreement that was agreed to by the communities in February 2020. And so this modified permit which is going out for comment is essentially sort of putting into federal permit language what was agreed to in the settlement agreement.”
The plan’s most controversial element remains a sticking point for its critics.
“Everybody needs to remember that this permit allows for a toxic dump in the towns of Lee and Lenox, not giving any care for the people who live around where this dump is going to be built," Tim Gray told WAMC. "And the end result is that it saves General Electric $200 million and leaves those neighborhoods holding the bag – and it really is terrible.”
Gray is the executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, who have bitterly protested the cleanup since it was announced in February – including at contentious public meetings about the plan later in the spring.
“What they refer to as the landfill is the upland disposal facility," said Deziel. "This is where we’re going to build a state-of-the-art, double-lined landfill that will take – the worst of the waste is going to go out of state. So about 10% of the material will go out of state. The remaining 90% will remain in state, and that goes into the disposal cell, the upland disposal facility.”
The new landfill isn’t the only issue critics have with the cleanup.
“They’re leaving huge amounts of PCBs in the river, and I know you’re familiar with the Hudson River problem that’s going on right now where EPA is being sued because the cleanup fell short of its goals and we think that this cleanup is headed towards that exact same scenario that’s going on in the Hudson River – and it worries us,” said Gray.
Deziel maintains that the plan – which includes the removal of dams, additional cleanups of conservation properties, extensive remediation, an enhanced Quality of Life Compliance Plan for communities affected by the cleanup, and more – is a balanced approach to a long-delayed project.
“We think it’s better than the 2016 plan, includes more cleanup, stronger commitments, long-term assurances, and we are interested in the public comment process,” he said.
The 45-day public comment period for the permit modifications begins July 14th. The EPA will hold a virtual public hearing on August 26th. For more information, click here.