PITTSFIELD -- A top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official urges residents, environmental groups and municipal officials to "embrace the complexity" of its proposed cleanup for the Housatonic River from southern Pittsfield into Connecticut.

New England EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding wasn't surprised several local environmentalists had negative reactions to the Rest of River cleanup proposal unveiled two weeks ago.

"It's early in the process, but people are going to take positions," he said. "It's the best work we can do at this point."

The Housatonic River Initiative, Housatonic Valley Association and Berkshire Environmental Action Team all say the plan doesn't go far enough to eradicate PCBs from in and around the Housatonic.

Spalding's remarks on Monday came during a meeting with The Eagle editorial board and two days prior to the first EPA-hosted public meeting to discuss the cleanup proposal.

The presentation and workshop are scheduled for Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School on East Street, preceded by a "poster information session" at 6 p.m., with EPA staff on hand to address specific topics.

The proposal will go through an extensive review process, which will take months, and result in the final plan.

The EPA Rest of the River plan calls on General Electric to spend an estimated $619 million to dredge, excavate and remove the likely cancer-causing chemicals from riverbed sediment as well as the flood plain in designated zones. Furthermore, GE would cap "hot spot" areas for 10.5 miles from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox Dale. The plan would remove 89 to 92 percent of PCBs annually from the most contaminated areas, such as Woods Pond.

Spalding told The Eagle the EPA would also be open to new remediation technologies -- if proven viable -- as part of the final cleanup plan, or as GE is removing or capping the PCBs.

"We're not going to let people experiment wildly on the Housatonic," he said.

For the past year, EPA and GE officials held, at times, intense discussions to determine what cleanup plan would please both the corporate giant and benefit the environment and communities along the river.

While GE has stated it couldn't reach an agreement with the EPA on all aspects of the plan, Spalding believes their differences can be resolved without litigation.

"I did not leave the table thinking GE would take it to court," he said. "I believe GE is open to doing something here -- just give them a chance."

GE released PCBs into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield transformer plant from 1932 until the U.S. government banned the substance in 1977. GE has already spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning up the first 1.5 miles of the river in Pittsfield and Silver Lake, once the city's most polluted bodies of water, now a recreational area for boating and catch-and-release fishing.

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