Count on it: There will be no dumping of contaminated material in Berkshire County from any dredging of the Housatonic to remove PCB contamination once the "Rest of the River" cleanup gets underway, a top state official asserted on Monday.
The project could cost GE up to $800 million, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Jim Murphy. GE released PCBs, a probable cancer-causing agent, into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield transformer plant from 1932 until the chemical was banned by the U.S. government in 1977.
"The commonwealth is unalterably opposed to a landfill in the Berkshires to take in the material from the cleanup," state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Kenneth L. Kimmell declared in an interview from his Boston office.
Kimmell was responding to concerns raised in a strongly worded letter signed by Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and five South County town leaders contending that proposed new state DEP waterways and wetlands regulations could lead to a hazardous waste dumping site at Lane Construction Co. on the Lee-Lenox Dale line or elsewhere in the county.
"Nothing in these regulations would allow that to happen," Kimmell told The Eagle. "We also have other regulations that prohibit dumping contaminated materials in those areas."
Specifically, he cited the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, which includes "anti-degradation provisions" that prevent "environmental backsliding.
Kimmell asserted that for two and a half years, he has been negotiating on a river restoration project that rules out any dumping site in the Berkshires. "There's no wiggle room," he insisted, adding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is on the same page.
The cleanup plan is expected to include dredging of contaminated sediment from a 10-mile section of the river south of Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield, especially at Woods Pond in Lenox, considered a major PCB "hot spot."
"Our preference is that a disposal be at a licensed PCB facility that can handle the amount of material," EPA spokesman Murphy explained, adding that there is none in Berkshire County or elsewhere in Massachusetts.
"It doesn't mean GE could not pursue that, but our plan will include disposal out of state," Murphy continued. "If GE opposes it, it could go to court."
Kimmell acknowledged that he was surprised by the letter, prepared by Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and staff members. "It would have been helpful to talk the issue through first," said Kimmell. "But it's fine, this is a public comment period."
An update on the EPA's long-delayed river-restoration proposal is on the agenda for Wednesday evening's meeting of the Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council. The public session is at the Lenox Library from 5:30 to 7:30.
"We're still in final stages of discussions with GE," said Murphy. "We'll let folks know about a couple of items we're still talking about, areas where we're still trying to get clarification."
Murphy said the EPA is hoping to release its river-cleanup plan right after Labor Day.
Kimmell also sought to put local leaders' worries to rest in an email to Karns late Friday afternoon. Bianchi and Select Board leaders in Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield had signed a statement earlier this month calling on the state agency to exclude hazardous waste from a proposed new regulation covering ecological restoration projects.
"This exclusion is absolutely necessary to prohibit responsible parties such as GE from using the new project category to allow disposal of dredged materials in environmentally-sensitive areas currently off limits to them," the letter emphasized.
The Upper Housatonic River is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) by the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
"GE has made no secret of its desire to dispose of all of the dredged contaminated material in disposal sites within Berkshire County," the local leaders wrote, "including the most probable site of Lane Construction Co. We adamantly oppose any wetland waterway regulations that would allow the disposal of contaminated sediments within an ACEC."
"Numerous protective safeguards and regulatory programs that guide and direct cleanup activities remain unchanged and will apply to the Housatonic Rest of the River cleanup activities," Kimmell stated in his written response.
Asked whether Kimmell's email resolved his concerns, Karns responded that because the proposed new state DEP rules are so complex, he's "not entirely satisfied."
But, he added, "I'm sure they're being absolutely honest nobody's trying to pull anything." Nonetheless, Karns warned that "a sharp attorney" could challenge the state's insistence that in-county hazardous waste disposal from a river cleanup is forbidden.
"EPA has been very solid that they're opposing the placement of another landfill in the county," said Karns. "State and federal agencies have been very strong on that. At end of the day, I'm not sure they would win on that point."
Referring to the Lane Construction site, Karns told The Eagle on Monday that "just because state and federal agencies don't want it, doesn't necessarily mean it can't happen."
According to Karns, GE could save several hundred million dollars in cleanup costs by disposing of hazardous sediment locally instead of at a federally-designated out-of-state site.
But Kimmell insisted that the no-dumping in Berkshire County requirement is ironclad, contains no loopholes and applies to any and all contaminants from a potential Housatonic dredging project.