LENOX -- There’s no denying that the EPA proposal for a $613 million GE cleanup of the Housatonic River on a 10.5-mile stretch from Pittsfield to Lenox will have a massive, disruptive impact on nearby residents, communities and wildlife.
It’s understandable that people living in two picturesque riverfront neighborhoods in southeast Pittsfield are deeply worried about the project that could send up to 30 trucks a day rumbling along their streets, carting away contaminated PCB material for shipment, quite possibly by rail, to a faraway, licensed disposal facility.
Who wouldn’t lose sleep over the prospect of living in a construction zone during a three- to five-year phase of the 13-year project?
At Wednesday night’s informal public forum in Lenox, EPA officials acknowledged the concerns, including the prospect raised by one Pittsfield resident that airborne PCB particles would be stirred up by the river dredging, drifting from west to east on prevailing winds.
Property values in the neighborhoods are likely to plunge over the prolonged run-up to the project, as well as the years of actual "remediation," to use an EPA phrase for removal of PCBs by excavation, followed by capping of the riverbed.
River enthusiasts who canoe and kayak along the 10-mile stretch of river from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to the heavily infiltrated Woods Pond in Lenox are perturbed by the loss of their bucolic outdoor recreation.
Wildlife specialists fear for the many species of amphibians, otters, mink, deer, raptors and others who frequent the twists and turns of the river in a remarkably rural setting only minutes from downtown Pittsfield and Lenox.
City and town officials worry about the destructive effects of the project’s trucks on fragile roadways. Even though GE is obligated to cover the costs of specific damage, six riverfront communities from Pittsfield to Sheffield have set up a $60,000 legal defense fund to prepare for potential lawsuits against GE to recover expected damage to their economies.
In a tourism-dominated region, Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi and Lenox officials have voiced concerns that the project could be detrimental to business activity once it begins, if not before.
Some environmental advocates express skepticism over the EPA proposal that would remove 90 percent of the PCBs from the river’s contaminated sectors and flood plain "hot spots." Several favor the single more drastic option that the federal agency considered but decided against: A 52-year, $919 million cleanup that would rid the river of at least 96 percent of the likely cancer-causing chemicals.
At the other end of the spectrum are the folks who minimize the health impacts of the PCBs, assuming that river users don’t eat the fish and refrain from mud wrestling on the shores. EPA leaders acknowledge that even after the cleanup is completed, one fish meal per month would be considered safe.
For the first time at Wednesday night’s session, the well-versed, articulate government reps offered a timeline for the start of the project. Considering the likelihood of various appeals through EPA channels, GE’s evident criticism of the proposal, and the possibility of lawsuits, we’re at least five years away from the start of the dredging.
There’s time for written public comment this summer, a formal public hearing in September, and then plenty of maneuvering. For some people, the prolonged uncertainty looms almost as large as the cleanup itself.
Among the 15 speakers from the audience on Wednesday night, there was one viewpoint that may have surprised some, since it came from a Pittsfield homeowner who endured the first two miles of the river restoration.
Citizens for PCB Removal was formed in 1996 in the neighborhoods just south of Pittsfield’s GE plant.
Barbara Cianfarini, a leader of the grass-roots organization, said: "It is not as bad as you think it’s going to be. It’s not wonderful, but it is doable, livable, and if you bring your concerns to the people in charge, they do listen and they do try and address them. And if you’re not happy, you just keep pushing. If you’re a big enough group, you’ll get your wishes answered."
Noting that the initial cleanup in Pittsfield affected residents in working-class neighborhoods, Cianfarini commented that "we all have the same concerns and desire, and I don’t think one group should expect to be more protected than another group."
After thanking the EPA, she acknowledged not being "100 percent happy" with the proposal described at the meeting in painstaking detail.
"But it’s been a long road to get here," she said, "and these people have worked very, very hard to get where we are now, so we need to keep sight of that. The EPA is not the enemy here."
Debate will continue over the extent and thoroughness of the cleanup proposal, the potential role of new technology, the method of transporting contaminated material away from the river, and many more details.
If the civility of the Wednesday night discussion continues, despite raw nerves and fears well-founded or unfounded, that’s at least one silver lining in an otherwise cloudy playbook.
Best to remember Cianfarini’s expression of hope. If it turns out not to be as bad as people dread, that may be the most we can expect.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.