Photo Gallery | Neighorhood activists opposed to the Housatonic River cleanup


VIDEO | Rick Williams shares his concerns about the Housatonic River cleanup.

VIDEO | Gloria Wesley expresses concern about the Housatonic River cleanup.

VIDEO | A snapping turtle looks for a nest site near the Housatonic River in Pittsfield

PITTSFIELD -- As far as the eye can see from the backyards of riverfront homes in the city's Ward 4, woodlands and open meadows beckon, offering a haven for deer, otter, mink -- even bears and coyotes.

It's a surprisingly rural, bucolic oasis of tranquility, home to nearly 400 families on the eastern and western shores off East New Lenox Road and Holmes Road.

Fearing a massive impact from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed cleanup plan to rid the Housatonic of most of its toxic PCBs -- probable cancer-causing chemicals -- residents are banding together to make their voices heard.

The Ward 4 River Watch was organized three years ago by prominent attorney C. Jeffrey Cook, a riverfront resident.

Citing proposed, extensive dredging to remove sediment from the riverbed and soil from the banks and floodplain in the EPA-designated Reach 5A, Cook declared: "We look at that and say, my God, what does this mean in terms of living conditions and what we do with our homes? This is feeling like a really scary process."

Noting the "spectre" hanging over homeowners, he commented that "the cavalier way in which this is just dismissed is discouraging to us."

The cleanup along the southeast Pittsfield shoreline could continue for at least five years, according to the new 44-page EPA document. The entire project downstream to Woods Pond in Lenox and points south is expected to require 13 years for GE to complete.

"It's going to be, for us, an absolute monster," Cook warned.

"This is our backyard and it is going to be turned into a heavy construction site," said Rick Williams, who works in the plastic industry and has lived on Eric Drive with his wife, Liz, and their two children for 16 years.

Citing a slogan voiced by some -- "it's a shame to destroy the river to save the river" -- Williams said: "It's a crime to destroy the river and not save the river," adding the hope that "our voices will be heard and taken into account when the decision comes down to go forward with this plan or maybe take it back and rethink it."

"The devastation to the neighborhoods and the quality of life for 5 to 10 years is a big concern," he maintained, pointing out potential nearby major staging areas for the project.

He recalled state studies depicting the area as "one of the healthiest, most bio-diverse areas in Massachusetts. It has the highest number of threatened and fragile species out there, and when this happens, they will be destroyed and we don't know whether any of them will come back."

Dave Bubriski, a 24-year Eric Drive resident who recently retired from the state Department of Transportation, expressed concern over the likely impact on area property values: "Who's going to want to move into a construction zone?"

He predicted the Ward 4 River Watch will attract more people as the project approaches "D-Day -- they're going to learn the impact and be shocked. We're going to be dealing with a learning curve in the neighborhood."

Bubriski downplays the danger posed by PCBs, describing estimates that "intimate contact with the mud" for 90 days annually for 70 years would be required before toxic effects could set in. Likewise, it would take heavy consumption of Housatonic fish over many years to present a health risk.

But he supports a thorough cleanup of Woods Pond in Lenox to capture toxins downstream.

He and other neighbors worry that their immediate surroundings would resemble a vast wasteland during construction.

Gloria Wesley, a physical therapist's assistant and East New Lenox Road resident for 30 years, fears "the devastation of the land itself."

An avid canoeist on the river four or five days a week, that potential disruption keeps her up at night, along with the prospect of continuous truck traffic on neighborhood streets.

Wesley favors a wait-and-see option as GE, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and other stakeholders continue debating the alternatives.

"My biggest concern is that I'm not quite sure that GE and the EPA have a good handle on how to dredge the river, take out the soils, transport them and then put something back in that's eco-friendly," said Liz Williams, an estimator for a construction company.

She cited the impact of continual heavy truck traffic on the side streets and on East New Lenox Road. Similar effects are expected on Shetland, Palomino, Clydesdale and Pinto drives -- all bearing picturesque names of ponies that used to roam the old polo grounds off Holmes Road, home to the Pittsfield Polo and Riding Club from 1930 to 1960.

The residents interviewed Friday morning hope their River Watch group can make a difference.

Williams favors a 10-year waiting period to see if new technology could offer a noninvasive cleanup that would avoid dredging but still eradicate the PCBs.

She also pointed out that the federal proposal shunted aside a much more limited approach favored by the state Department of Environmental Protection. "That's a difficult pill to swallow because of all the endangered species that would be wiped out should they move forward with their plan."

"I think people will do what they have to do to defend their homes," Cook said.

Litigation is among the potential options, he added.

"As far as we're concerned, there's nothing off the table because this is really alarming," he said. "So far, we haven't heard from anybody as to what they'll be doing to protect the people who will be the most adversely affected."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

In their own words

Some views on the proposed PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River:

"The EPA has never done anything of this magnitude so close to a residential neighborhood. These staging areas are a real monster. All the critters will get killed off, they'll destroy the habitat for sure. The view of the homeowner is that they've got a ridiculous standard that requires even more cleanup. They're going to go in and destroy this gorgeous area. It's really overdone, in our judgment, and very threatening to us, so we're getting organized." -- attorney C. Jeffrey Cook, leader of Ward 4 River Watch

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"We don't think there is a perfect proposal, or one that is perfect and practical. I hope that the ordinary folks, the neighbors, the abutters will get organized and involved in the process. I will say that GE has not made this process easy. Maybe I'll leave it at that." -- Gov. Deval Patrick

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"My hope is that they just keep arguing and going back and forth for so many years that they find another alternative or come to the realization that what they're planning is not the best for the river, the environment, the neighborhoods." -- Gloria Wesley, East New Lenox Road resident

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"I don't think any of us will be lying down in front of bulldozers or anything like that; no Tiananmen Square here. I wish they would just leave the whole thing alone." -- Dave Bubriski, riverfront resident, Ward 4 River Watch coordinator

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"We do all this, for what? You still won't be able to eat the fish and I have tried to think up some activity that you will be able to do after the cleanup that you aren't safe to do today." -- Riverfront resident Rick Williams

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"We can start asking detailed questions, we can use experience from other GE jobs that have occurred to understand the ramifications of the cleanup. All the wildlife back there is irreplaceable. I don't think you have to be neighboring the river to understand the value it provides." -- Riverfront resident Liz Williams