Sunday June 17, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- For years the path toward a plan for cleaning the Housatonic River south of the confluence has mimicked the river itself -- slowly meandering in a sometime circuitous path toward its end.

But if you’re looking for a sign that a decision is finally drawing near, all you have to do is check your mailbox.

General Electric Co., the responsible party for PCB contamination south of Fred Garner Park, has begun a public campaign to raise awareness about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s pending proposal for the river.

It started earlier this month with video posts on the company’s dedicated Housatonic River website (housatonicoptions.com) contradicting statements made by EPA that the river could be restored after dredging. The effort expanded last week when GE sent scores of direct mail postcards to locals urging the public to "get the facts before it’s too late."

The EPA last month released a status report describing in general terms its vision for removing up to 1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and soil from the river and its flood plain, or roughly 25 percent of all PCBs in the so-called Rest of River.

The EPA says it expects to release its formal proposal this summer for remediating contamination from the probable cancer-causing chem ical released from GE’s former Pittsfield plant.

Andrew Williams, a GE spokesman, said in a statement that the purpose of the public push is to make people aware the EPA is "rushing to a judgment" despite lingering questions about the status report.

"The status report raises far more questions than answers about the type of remediation that EPA may propose," said Williams. "These questions deserve answers by EPA."

GE used PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in its transformer manufacturing until 1977 -- the same year most uses were banned by the federal government.

EPA spokesman Jim Murphy said the agency is fine with GE’s advocacy campaign.

"We certainly welcome any kind of focus on the whole cleanup process," said Murphy. "It’s not a bad thing that they’re alerting people that this is coming soon."

GE continues to call for input in the process, saying it has been excluded from months of "closed door" discussions between the EPA and environmental officials from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Murphy said the EPA is simply following the procedural steps laid out in a 1999 agreement between Pitts field, the EPA, GE and various other state and federal agencies for mitigation of the toxin related to the former Morningside plant.

"GE is going to have ample opportunity to give us their thoughts and to work with us," said Murphy. "The idea that they have to be at the table beforehand, that’s just not the way that we typically do it at our larger sites."

Murphy said the EPA looks forward to working with GE not only on the proposal but in the design of the cleanup.

"We know there are a lot of questions still to be answered," said Murphy. "Once we get our proposed plan out on the table, we anticipate a positive and cooperative relationship with GE going forward."

GE, however, continues to call for a less-intensive remediation of the Rest of River, and says its exclusion from reaching a solution for the Housatonic could lead to "years of conflict and delay."

To reach Trevor Jones:
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