LENOX -- A long-awaited draft proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency to extend a PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River along a 10-mile stretch south of Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield is expected in two to three months, according to town leaders examining the economic impact of the project.

Officials from six communities in the path of the cleanup -- Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield -- are keeping a close eye on the emerging "Rest of River" cleanup through group meetings, said Selectman John McNinch.

They are also weighing a consultant's report on the adverse social and economic impacts of the cleanup. The study by Skeo Solutions, based in Charlottesville, Va., was funded by the EPA, though the federal agency did not direct the research or its findings.

McNinch calls the cleanup's impact "very significant. It's huge."

For a cleanup option that would involve a moderate level of sediment and soil removal from the river channel, river bank and flood plain, the report cites a 14-year time frame to remove PCBs.

PCBs are probable cancer-causing chemicals that contaminate the river downstream from GE's former Pittsfield transformer plant. PCBs got into the river between 1932 until 1977 when the U.S. government banned the chemicals.

During an update at Wednesday night's Lenox Select Board meeting, Town Manager Gregory Federspiel asserted that the total economic cost from cleanup activities is estimated "in the hundreds of millions."

"Tourism will take a hit, property values will decline, roadways will be torn up," he warned.

The consultants foresee a potential temporary property-value decline ranging up to $397 million. However, after the cleanup, they expect a long-term positive effect of up to $795 million on real estate prices, with a gain of as much as $11 million in property tax revenues, based on current tax rates.

The report estimates a 14-year total cost as high as $168,000 for pavement damage, congestion, crashes and noise caused by heavy truck traffic transporting soil and sediment from the site to a disposal facility out of the area. But the impact could be reduced by using the Housatonic Railroad to transport materials for disposal if a loading site can be located near the primary cleanup area.

Skeo Solutions also expects the ongoing cleanup could detract from the area's appeal to tourists, though no dollar figure is projected.

As for employment, the project could create up to 50 jobs for 14 years; local contractors and vendors could see as much as $113 million in new spending.

Ultimately, Federspiel said, the affected communities will have to negotiate with GE for payments "to make us whole." Efforts are under way to set up a meeting with GE officials to lay the groundwork.

Release of the draft proposal -- delayed while the EPA negotiates with GE and meets with state environmental officials -- will trigger public informational forums, a minimum 45-day public comment period, a review of the comments and potential appeals to an EPA board and possibly to federal courts.

Eventually, Federspiel said, a consultant to negotiate on behalf of the six communities will be hired, an expense to be shared by the towns.

The greatest impact of the cleanup, focusing on "hot spots" of PCB contamination, will extend from southeast Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox, which could be targeted for dredging and deepening.

Federspiel credited the EPA for its "unprecedented, groundbreaking" commissioning of an economic impact study and for acknowledging the communities' concerns.

But McNinch pointed out that "the EPA's goal and concern is the health of the river and the area, not the economics."

"They've made it pretty clear it's going to be up to us fight the fight with GE and our politicians to get some help," said Federspiel. 

The GE Housatonic Citizens Coordinating Council, made up of officials from the EPA, GE, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, local government leaders and environmental advocates, will hold its next public meeting at the Lenox Library on Wednesday, May 15, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., to continue discussions on the impending cleanup.

At the council's last meeting on Jan. 30, Tim Conway, senior enforcement counsel for the EPA, outlined a series of meetings involving government agencies and GE to discuss the scope of the cleanup and the disposal of contaminated PCBs and sediment.

The EPA prefers that the contaminated material be shipped by rail off-site to a disposal facility, possibly in Texas, but not in Massachusetts.

The project is governed by a 1999 "consent decree" involving the EPA, GE, other state and federal agencies, and the city of Pittsfield. A cleanup of a two-mile stretch of the river in Pittsfield was completed in 2006 at a cost of close to $100 million.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

Online ...

The entire Skeo Solutions study can be viewed at www.epa.gov/region1/ge. It is also available at www.skeo.com/updates.