Sunday May 27, 2012

LENOX

A formal proposal to rid the Housatonic River below Pittsfield of PCB contamination remains elusive, as was made clear this past week by Curt Spalding, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator.

But the agency, now working in apparent harmony with state officials from Massachusetts and Connecticut, hopes to issue its game plan sometime this summer for what’s sure to be an extensive period of public comment and feedback, if not push-back, from GE, the "responsible party" for cleaning up the river.

The plan has been hatching for longer than anticipated, trying the patience of many in the community with high stakes in the outcome. The EPA had originally targeted last fall for a first look at the proposed scenario.

The public may be suffering "river fatigue," since a disappointingly low turnout of about 70 people -- including many officials -- attended the multimedia presentation hosted by Spalding at the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School auditorium on Thursday evening.

Here’s the conundrum as Spalding outlined in a presentation refreshingly free of technical enviro-speak. "We don’t want to do too much to the river and we don’t want to do too little for it," he said.

The biggest challenge he identified: Finding the "sweet spot" that digs out and removes the contaminated sediment, eliminating the threat to human health and enabling safe fishing to resume, without disrupting the sensitive river ecology and the many wildlife inhabitants along the long, winding riverbed.


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A highlight of the presentation was a video "flyover" depicting the river’s ebb and flow from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield, through Lenox (with several "hot spots," including Woods Pond), then Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Sheffield and on into Connecticut, all the way to Long Island Sound.

It was an illuminating depiction of a river that twists and turns through woodlands, industrial zones, a series of dams, farmland and towns.

The broad outline being explored by federal and state agencies: Dredging, excavation of PCB-laden sediment, removing it by raIl to an out-of-state facility that handles such contaminants, capping the river bottom with a carbon-based protective shield and restoring the riverbank to eventually pristine condition.

More than one million tons of contaminated soil and sediment is likely to require removal. New technologies might present a less-invasive cleanup.

The likely cancer-causing chemicals released by GE-Pittsfield until 1977 resulted in "abusive behavior" toward the river which, as Spalding put it, "is doing its very best to become as natural and as healthy as it can be. What we’re trying to do is take it to that next level."

Finding that sweet-spot solution that is acceptable to all sides is causing the holdup in the formal release of a detailed proposal.

Spalding’s response to a question from Pittsfield resident Barbara Cianfarini was telling. She asked who would be responsible for making the final decision, who calls the shots that will determine the specifics of the cleanup.

"That’s me," said Spalding. "I’m the one who issues the permit." Then he added, somewhat wistfully, "that’s if I’m still in this job by then."

H. Curtis Spalding was appointed to his post as regional administrator for the Northeast by President Obama on Nov. 5, 2009. If Mitt Romney is elected this fall, job security for Obama appointees may become quite fragile.

All of which goes to show that the outcome of the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection’s arduous task of researching and identifying the best-possible compromise remains uncertain at best.

Clarence Fanto is an Eagle staff writer.