LEE -- The six communities along the Housatonic River are a step closer to hiring a law firm to negotiate a possible settlement with General Electric over the impact of a proposed PCB cleanup.
Pittsfield, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield have reached a tentative formal agreement of how they will pursue compensation from GE associated with the so-called Rest of the River remediation of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Representatives from the city and five towns that comprise the Rest of the River Committee adopted the document on Monday and forwarded it to their individual municipal officials for review and final approval.
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission must also sign off on the intergovernmental agreement as BRPC staff are overseeing the group's effort. Barring any unresolved legal issues, the committee expects final approval from all parties involved by the end of September.
"We want help during the cleanup so we can survive the cleanup," said Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason.
The PCBs leached into the Housatonic River from the former GE transformer plant in Pittsfield. The chemical, a suspected carcinogen, was banned by the U.S. government in 1977.
In the coming months, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to outline a plan to clean up PCB contamination in the Housatonic River from southern Pittsfield to the Connecticut border. The plan likely would include dredging of contaminated sediment from a 10-mile section of the river south of Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield.
The affected communities want GE to mitigate any potential damage resulting from the cleanup. Regional planners have suggested $250 million as a "conservative estimate" of potential economic damages to the area.
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns noted a drop in property values as one potential economic impact from the cleanup.
In recent weeks, 39 homes have been identified with contamination levels that merit further testing, Karns has said. There is also concern about PCB buildup around Woods Pond in Lenox, Rising Pond Dam in Great Barrington, and about mud contamination in other down-river sites.
Any settlement with GE could include direct and/or indirect financial compensation, such as the building of a bike trail, according to BRPC officials.
"This is an attempt to get compensation for damages that the federal government can't extract from GE," said BRPC senior planner Lauren Gaherty.
While Pittsfield and the five towns are united in dealing with the impact of a cleanup, they won't collectively try to influence the remediation plan itself.
"Each [community] and individuals may go forward with comments on what the solution should be, but this isn't what this [committee] is all about," said Sheffield Selectman Rene Wood.
According to the draft document adopted Monday, each community will contribute $10,000 for a total of $60,000 to retain the Boston-based Pawa Law Group. The firm would begin discussions with GE about the economic impact of a cleanup on the six municipalities -- once GE and the EPA agree on a cleanup plan.
The committee's proposed agreement calls for at least five of the six communities to agree on key issues -- especially anything directly involving GE, once Berkshire County's largest employer.
The cleanup isn't expected to be completed anytime soon. Under moderate projections, the cleanup is anticipated to take 15 years, but under an extreme scenario the cleanup could take 50 years, according to Karns.
General Electric would have the right to appeal cleanup decisions with the EPA and federal courts., BRPC officials have said.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
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