LENOX -- Local environmentalists anticipate a lengthy court battle over the long-awaited PCB cleanup plan for the Housatonic River due out this spring.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency formally announced Wednesday night the agency expects to unveil the "Rest of the River" proposal in May -- a document three years in the making, according to Jim Murphy, spokesman for EPA Region 1. The announcement came before the EPA Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council (CCC) meeting at the Lenox Library.

Murphy indicated after 16 months of discussions with General Electric that ended in December, the corporate giant and EPA won't see eye to eye on PCB remediation.

"We came to no firm agreement on anything," he said, "but came to an understanding [of each other's positions]."

Several CCC members said after the meeting they believe the comment to mean GE will oppose the plan in federal court.

"I think it's 99.9 percent given they will challenge it," said Dennis Regan, Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

"It's always the way GE operates," added Barbara Cianfarini of Citizens for PCB Removal. "This process gives them a way to challenge [the plan] in court."

In June 2011, EPA Region 1 presented a draft plan for EPA officials to review, before sharing and discussing it with with Massachusetts and Connecticut environmental officials. Following the states' review, EPA and GE began talks over what the plan might entail.

Murphy said the public will have at least 60 days to comment on the cleanup proposal, but expects extensions will be granted.

"It's hard to say ‘No' when people have been waiting years and years for this," he noted.

The details will remain under wraps until it's released.

While the EPA will keep details of the plan under wraps until its released, the agency officials have publicly stated a PCB landfill in the Berkshires won't be part of its Rest of the River remediation. Local environmental and citizens groups doubt the company will go along with the federal agency's scenario, which could benefit anti-landfill advocates.

"If GE takes [the EPA] to court, it may work in favor of the cleanup," noted CCC member Benno Friedman of Sheffield.

Friedman referring to the Housatonic River Initiative (HRI) seeking EPA approval to test an alternative method to treating PCBs dug up from the Housatonic.

The expanded PCB cleanup from southern Pittsfield to the Connecticut border is expected to include dredging of contaminated sediment from a 10-mile section of river south of Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield.

Instead of hauling away and burying the polluted soil -- possibly in Berkshire County -- HRI last fall offered a way of treating on-site sediment removed from PCB "hot spots."

During a presentation in Great Barrington, HRI Executive Director Tim Gray had said the method developed by BioTech Restorations of North Carolina has been successfully used in California. He noted BioTech is willing to test -- for free --100 samples of PCB-laden sediment to prove its method works and is cheaper than dredging.

The PCBs leached into the Housatonic from the former GE transformer plant in Pittsfield, making their way downstream well into Connecticut. The suspected cancer-causing chemical was banned by the United States government in 1977.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233