During my frequent six-mile hikes along the Housatonic from Woods Pond north toward New Lenox, I find the serenity of the setting to be of such spiritual sustenance that the thought of what might lie ahead for this section of the river -- with its crystalline beauty but invisible PCB contamination -- makes me shudder.
Following a "Rest of River" cleanup review last week by Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, some felt they were left with a Hobson’s choice between two evils: Living with dangerous pollution or enduring a massively disruptive dredging operation that could last as long as 15 years.
A cleanup proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is three years overdue -- apparently the result of inconclusive negotiations so far between the EPA and General Electric on the scope and cost of a PCB removal effort. Back in March 2010, the EPA’s New England spokesman, Jim Murphy, told The Eagle that GE faced a July 15, 2010, deadline to propose a cleanup plan that the federal agency would take over and modify.
I checked in with Murphy three days ago to update the timetable. Pointing out that most EPA staffers had been furloughed during the 16-day partial government shutdown (though he was spared because of an environmental emergency in Vermont), Murphy offered a cautiously worded "hope" that an EPA plan might emerge "early next year."
Even if that happens, any proposal is likely to be tied up in prolonged public comment periods and potential court challenges.
There’s much at stake, obviously. As we know, GE used PCBs at its Pittsfield electrical-transformer plant from the 1930s until 1977, when the U.S. government banned the chemical because of studies linking it to cancer, lower IQ levels, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other illnesses. Two miles of the river was cleaned up in Pittsfield just a few years ago, and some of it now has the odd appearance of a man-made canal.
The next phase would target a seemingly pristine, 10-mile stretch from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to Woods Pond, which bisects Lee and Lenox. There are several PCB "hot spots" along this twisting, winding route, especially as it emerges into Woods Pond.
The price tag for a full-fledged cleanup, involving some degree of dredging, could exceed $1 billion.
Beyond that, a study on the potential economic impact of the work on neighborhoods near the river indicated a cost of $250 million to $500 million for the communities involved.
The fallout would include depressed property values, loss of tax revenue, damage to infrastructure caused by heavy trucks rumbling over rural roads carting away dredged sediment, a decline in tourism and outdoor recreation, and compromised quality of life for residents near the construction zone or along transportation routes.
Six communities are banding together for a legal team to protect their interests -- the intergovernmental agreement has been approved by Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, and Pittsfield’s City Council is expected to join the effort at its meeting this Tuesday.
The goal is to make sure GE compensates the communities for the considerable economic damage a wide-ranging cleanup would inflict. To that end, hiring the Pawa Law Group, based in Newton near Boston, seems well worth the initial $10,000 each of the six municipalities is kicking in.
No surprise that GE is expected to seek a minimal cleanup with a much lower price tag. Some folks agree with the notion that "destroying the river in order to save it" is an excessive solution.
There have been tantalizing hints of advanced biotechnical remedies that could avoid the dreaded dredging. Karns has pointed out that to remove all traces of PCBs from the river and its shores would take 50 years. He predicts a 15-year cleanup that would require some dredging and the hauling away of contaminated sediment to a secure disposal site that had better be far away, such as one in the Western wilderness.
The Pawa legal eagles have an enviable pro-environmental track record winning successful court battles on behalf of local residents against big corporations.
According to the intergovernmental agreement, the outcome of a "Rest of River" cleanup plan is "one of the most important regional issues in recent Berkshire County history" because of the major geographical and economic impact combined with the extended time frame likely to be required.
Even GE’s minimum cleanup scenario would take five years, if the EPA and state agencies agree to that smaller-scale solution.
The regional planning commission acts as the agent for the six communities in any negotiations with GE for economic relief. Potential settlement offers from the company would require unanimous approval by the committee representing the municipalities, and each local government has the right to approve or veto the deal.
The only red flag in the agreement is that negotiations and discussions are likely to be confidential with meetings held in secret, also known as executive session. Since all this involves "attorney-client privilege," the open meeting law seems to offer little if any recourse.
Just as the river meanders its way from Pittsfield to Lee and points south, the cleanup proposal is bound to continue along the long and winding road it has already taken.
To contact Clarence Fanto: email@example.com