Saturday September 1, 2012

Six Berkshire County communities have joined together to ask that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provide a clearer and deeper understanding of the impacts from removing PCBs from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield, left behind from the once-thriving GE plant.

A letter signed by town representatives from Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield -- plus Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi -- and addressed to EPA Region 1 Administrator Curt Spalding, states that the EPA-funded study called "Cleanup of the Housatonic ‘Rest of River' Socio economic Impact Study" includes data and calculations that "underestimate the socioeconomic impacts that can be experienced by our communities during cleanup activities." The study was conducted by third-party Skeo Solutions in June.

The letter, sent Friday, is separated into impacts on traffic, tourism, outdoor recreation, property values, possibly closing Lane Construction Corp. to become an on-site landfill, aesthetic impacts, and effects on residential quality of life.

The letter, ideally, will spur the EPA into filling in gaps of the study that "wasn't deep enough," said Great Barrington Town Manager Kevin O'Donnell.

"It's a broad picture without any ground of specificity," he said.

O'Donnell signed the letter at a Town Hall meeting Monday, making Great Barrington the fourth town to do so. Stockbridge was the last represented town to sign the letter on Wednesday.

It was not a unanimous vote for Stockbridge, according to Select Board Chairwoman Deb McMen amy, who voted in favor in the 2-1 vote of signing the EPA-addressed letter.

"Those that did vote to sign it know it's important for the communities to present a united front," McMenamy said. "In Stockbridge, not a lot is being planned for the river, but there could be impacts on the roads, trucking materials to and from."

Lenox Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler signed the letter at an Aug. 22 meeting, making it the third community, behind Lee and Sheffield, to do so.

"This will set the foundation for a serious discussion on how to mitigate any degradation from the cleanup," Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel said.

Lee and Lenox will be the two most impacted towns, according to Lee Town Administrator Bob Nason, and said it was "great that all the towns are working together."

Though Sheffield has "very low-level" contamination and lacks the hotspots seen in neighboring towns, Selectman Rene Wood said having that cohesive unit was important, she said.

"Economic impacts for one town affects the other towns. It's really important that the six towns are working as a team," Wood, who's been the point-person for the Sheffield efforts, said. The actual letter was signed by current Chairman David Smith Jr.

Bianchi signed the letter Thurs day after a meeting with Nathaniel Karns, executive director for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

"Pittsfield has the largest portion of contamination," Bianchi said. "It's important for Pittsfield to be part of the discussion. It's going to be a long process."

The process will be "transparent and community driven," according to James McGrath, the Park and Open Space program manager for Pittsfield. His office has handled Pittsfield's involvement in the Rest of River cleanup initiative.

"Pittsfield is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the communities," McGrath said. "Rest of River is a regional project that just doesn't impact Pittsfield, or Lenox, or Great Barrington -- it impacts all of us that are set to sign the document."

It was important to have Pittsfield on board as well to provide a strong, unified voice when appealing to EPA and GE. Karns said. Pittsfield was awarded $10 million for economic development by the Consent Decree signed by a dozen local, regional, state and federal stakeholders.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has overseen the entire process since four of the five towns first approached them in February. The order of communities that signed it was contingent upon the area's respective meeting dates.

Though the communities that would be affected by the cleanup have stepped up to provide their input, the effort has no definite start or completion date. A calendar that lays out a cleanup schedule might be released by the EPA by the end of the calendar year, according to Karns.

"This is a process that is fraught with the ability to be delayed by those who don't like the way the process is going," he said.

While having PCBs removed from the river is an inherently good move for local health, there are costs all around for the process.

"Whichever option you choose, there are costs involved, even if you leave the PCBs in there," Karns said. "There's the benefit of having construction activity and jobs, and we don't want to lose sight of that. There are some pluses to this."

GE's PCBs were spilled or dumped in various parts of Pittsfield and the river when the company operated a transformer plant here. PCBs were banned in 1977 after the federal government concluded the chemical is a probable carcinogen.

PCBs were used by GE in its transformer manufacturing between 1932 and 1977 because of its resistance to fire and electrical insulating properties.

It's estimated that between 100,000 and 600,000 pounds of PCBs are in the river and its flood plain between Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield and the Long Island Sound after flowing downstream from GE's former Pittsfield plant. The majority of contamination can be found in a 10-mile span between the park and Woods Pond in Lenox.