PITTSFIELD -- The City Council has voted to join a group of Berkshire communities working to negotiate compensation from GE during the Housatonic River cleanup -- but not before a lengthy debate on the matter.
After more than an hour of questioning and comments, the $10,000 appropriation -- requested by Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi -- was approved on a 6-5 vote on Tuesday night. Opponents found fault with details of the proposed contract and called for more time to review its implications.
"I think the language [in the contract] needs to be cleaned up," said Councilor at large Barry Clairmont, who asked a dozen questions about wording in the intergovernmental pact. He said he didn't see any harm in tabling the issue until the next council meeting in three weeks.
Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop said the council "should have had more of an opportunity to discuss this before."
Bianchi said the six-community agreement to form a united front during the upcoming PCB cleanup along 10 miles of the river from Pittsfield south has been discussed with officials in the five towns over the past two years. He said it would have been impractical to have councilors involved in developing such an agreement, but that the council's role comes in when there is a request for approval and for funding.
Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo, who supported the agreement, said councilors should not "be nit-picking a document that has been thoroughly vetted."
Ward 6 Councilor John Krol and Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon raised concerns about how any compensation would be divided under the pact. Krol's motion to table the matter until next month failed on a 5-6 vote before the council voted 6-5 to approve the contract.
Councilors Clairmont, Krol, Yon, Lothrop and Paul Capitanio voted against the pact, and Mazzeo, Kevin Morandi, Christopher Connell, Anthony Simonelli, Churchill Cotton and Council President Kevin Sherman voted to approve.
With the decision, Pittsfield joined five towns along the river -- Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield -- in agreeing to kick in an initial $10,000 to hire a highly regarded environmental law firm.
The contract also calls for the communities to work with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which will act as their agent in the process. The group will retain Newton-based Pawa Law Group to begin preliminary research into the issues and help determine a course of action.
The initial fund of $60,000 would not cover legal costs if a lawsuit is filed by the communities to seek compensation from the company, Bianchi said, adding that future decisions on how to proceed would require unanimous approval of the communities, and each is free to leave the group at any point.
Community Development Director Douglas Clark said the hope is to have the law firm retained and the group in place before the federal Environmental Protection Agency issues its draft proposal for how to clean up the river areas south of the former GE facilities in Pittsfield where the PCB pollution originated.
The EPA could issue its proposal early next year, he said, and there will be a period allowed for public comment. "The sooner we get engaged the better," Clark said. "We can help shape the discussions going forward."
PCBs spilled into the river from GE's Pittsfield electrical transformer plant from the 1930s until the federal government banned the likely cancer-causing chemical in 1977. A prior multi-year phase of the cleanup process focused on land around the former plant off East Street.
Some councilors questioned what would happen under the contract if a major award in compensation was reached and a unanimous decision on compensation shares must be reached. "If you have $200 million on the table, collegiality will go out the window," Clairmont said.
Bianchi said such speculation takes the situation "to infinity," but all that is under discussion now is a modest contribution. He added that it is more than likely neither party will want to go to court, and compensation for losses to the tourism industry, recreation or a negative effect on property values during the cleanup can be negotiated.
With the initial $60,000, Bianchi said the communities expect to get the complex legal research and assessment process completed and a recommendation on options for obtaining compensation. At that point, he said, further decisions can be made.
City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan said the contract contains a clause that allows amendments to the pact, such as to specify at a later date how compensation would be allocated.
In response to questions, Bianchi said that during discussions with town representatives it was well understood that 38 percent of the affected riverpath land is in Pittsfield and the greatest impact of a cleanup will be in the city. He added that a spirit of cooperation prevailed at the meetings.
Going into the process along with five towns will spread out the cost, he said, and will boost the area's leverage when seeking support in negotiations with GE and the EPA from state and federal legislators.
Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, recently estimated that cleanup-related damages to the communities could range from $250 million to as high as $500 million, depending on the cleanup methods decided upon. Those could include dredging.
He said he believes the EPA will seek a middle course between allowing the PCBs to be absorbed over many decades and removing all of the PCBs from the river, which could take up to 50 years.
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