Tonight in Lenox, Massachusetts, state and federal officials will hold a public meeting to discuss how to spend General Electric settlement money on the polluted Housatonic River Watershed.
Beginning the early 1930s and stretching into the late 1970s, the multinational conglomerate dumped polychlorinated biphenyl or PCBs into the Housatonic River from its plant in Pittsfield. For almost 20 years, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been using money from the company to combat the damage of decades of pollution. Meagan Racey is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Back in 2000, we secured a settlement with General Electric for a pot of money to restore natural resources. That was a $7.75 million settlement," explained Racey. "That has been broken into several chunks over the years since that time and put on the ground for various types of restoration projects.”
The $1.5 million chunk being discussed Wednesday is the fourth and final round of funding from the settlement.
“So we went to communities last year and received several ideas for how we might be able to use that last $1.5 million and we spent some time working with folks to understand those projects, evaluate those projects, evaluate those projects, and we put together a draft restoration plan with six projects,” said Racey.
“I think what’s exciting about them is that they restore a variety of different habitats in the western part of the state and the Housatonic River Watershed, they’re also located a little bit throughout the watershed, and what’s really exciting to me is that they benefit wildlife that was impacted originally from the PCBs coming from the site – and also the people who live in the area," said Molly Sperduto, supervisor of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services New England field office in Concord, New Hampshire. Her team takes polluters to task.
“Under the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Law, and the Oil Pollution Act we are authorized as natural resource trustees to work with responsible parties to seek compensation for those impacts for the natural resources and for the public,” said Sperduto.
The six projects that Berkshire residents will hear about range from restoring the Churchill Brook in Pittsfield – a joint undertaking between state, federal, and local groups like the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, the Housatonic Valley Association, and more – to healing the rare calcareous fens that the Housatonic River Watershed is home to.
“We’ve also got projects that are aimed at protecting wildlife habitat and primarily wetlands, flood plain, ponds, and these will provide habitat for fish and wildlife that were impacted as well as recreational opportunities for the public both to get out on the water, to access trail, and just to appreciate the natural environment and the fish and wildlife that were impacted,” said Sperduto.
Another project is specifically aimed at education.
“And that’s a really exciting project because it brings people out onto the river at Canoe Meadows and teaches kids in middle school and elementary schools about what a unique resource the Housatonic River Watershed is,” she said.
Residents will be able to hear about the projects, offer feedback, or even suggest new ideas at the Lenox Public Library at 5:30 p.m.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take public comment through May 15th, and a final plan will be released a month or two later.