GREAT BARRINGTON — An overflow crowd of more than 350 concerned citizens turned out for a public forum on Tuesday night in support of the EPA proposal for the cleanup of the Housatonic River.
But they also want to be clear that they oppose any plan to dump the PCB-tainted material in their community.
The meeting, led by Timothy Grey, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Main Street in Housatonic. Residents filled the church pews, packed the rear of the church and spilled out the main exit.
Grey said it was important to "start a conversation" about the cleanup issue.
General Electric dumped polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the river until they were banned in 1979. They are suspected of causing causer, and they have been found to have detrimental effects on the immune, reproductive and neurological systems of animals and humans.
EPA's proposal calls for GE to dredge portions of the river south of Pittsfield and ship the contaminated soil to a licensed facility out of state, the company. But the company is pushing an alternative plan that calls for depositing the contaminated soil in one of three possible dump sites in Lee, Lenox or Housatonic — a savings of $350 million.
That option would face a multitude of federal, state and local legal hurdles and take years to complete. But Grey said on Tuesday that taking no stance on the issue would be counterproductive to local efforts to force GE to complete the cleanup effort.
'We need to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to continue to advocate for a cleanup," he said.
On Monday night, the Great Barrington Select Board issued a statement declaring its support for full cleanup of the river, and the deportation of the PCB-ridden soil to a licensed facility.
Great Barrington is a member of the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee. That group is composed of the towns of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge and Sheffield — essentially the towns through which the Housatonic River flows.
Depositing PCBs in a local landfill, the board said, "would have a detrimental effect on our residents," and "would serve as a toxic resting ground [for PCBs] in perpetuity."
On Tuesday night, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli lauded the board's efforts in the name of unity.
"These towns have to stick together," he said. GE probably wouldn't use all the landfills they've proposed, but if we as a group don't reject all of them, who knows which one they will target?"
Grey added after the meeting that while the town of Lee, Lenox and Housatonic were targeted publicly, "we don't really know if there are any more sites on the table. In my experience with GE, that's a possibility."
A vast majority of residents at the meeting were in agreement that GE should be forced to clean up the river south of Pittsfield. Not all were in agreement as to how.
One woman decried the proposed dredging technology as intrusive and potentially damaging to the environment.
Grey acknowledged that there are bioremediation technologies that might be more effective. But, he said, the Environmental Protection Agency's plans are to require dredging.
But, he said, the technology is no longer as invasive.
"The technology used now is sort of like a large vacuum cleaner," he said. "It can suck up the contaminated soil in a less intrusive way.
"Nobody relishes the thought of scooping up large portions of the riverbed," he said. "But there have been improvements in the methodology in recent years."
Grey also said the county will get only one chance to clean up the river.
"Once this job is completed," he said. "The EPA won't come back to it. Whatever has been done will be the end of it. We need to advocate for as comprehensive cleanup as possible."
Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.