PITTSFIELD -- The top federal environmental official in New England has asserted that he welcomes a dialogue with residents of southeast Pittsfield dismayed by a potential five-year construction project in their riverfront neighborhood during a GE cleanup of toxic PCBs from the Housatonic.
"I’m glad that they’re looking at this closely," said EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding during a briefing for Eagle reporters and editors on Monday. He anticipated a turnout of Ward 4 residents who live along the river at Wednesday evening’s informational meeting in Lenox.
Describing the government’s Rest of River cleanup proposal, Spalding explained that a cleanup of the 3.5-mile stretch of the river that meanders through a bucolic section of Pittsfield en route to north Lenox could be handled stage by stage.
"It’s possible one can move down the river in small chunks, then open up that chunk and move to the next one, just moving down the river," he explained. "There’s a lot unknown. They [the residents] are presuming a lot of things that I just wouldn’t presume right now."
"I appreciate the concern," he added. "I think it can be done with less impact. I hope they give it a chance. These kinds of cleanups are very, very difficult. The scale and scope of this is very big, the emotions are very high.
He urged continued civility, "that people respect their neighbors who may have differing opinions, that they respect the hard work of the government entities who’ve tried to do their best, and quite honestly, that GE is open to doing something here. Just give them a chance before we judge what they’re going to do."
Asserting that PCBs are having a "long-term detrimental effect on the river," Spalding said, "I’m eager to see those otters and raptors and other critters living more healthfully in the system. While the habitat looks healthy, it’s not."
The EPA official was responding to concerns raised by members of Ward 4 River Watch, led by attorney C. Jeffrey Cook, that their neighborhoods would be drastically disrupted and property values would plummet. They argued that the health and safety benefits of the cleanup are questionable.
However, Spalding contended, the goal is to remove as much health risk as possible without doing undue harm to the river and the community.
"These folks are suggesting the impact would be harmful beyond what is reasonable," he said. "I ask them to read the plan, we haven’t gotten to the design yet. Until these issues are laid out, I think it’s premature to say this harm to their community is so great that we need to trade off the risk reduction we’re looking for here."
Spalding described one goal of the cleanup as allowing one fish to be eaten per month without a potential hazard, since PCBs are likely cancer-causing toxins.
"People may think in a 10-year or 20-year term," he said. "But there are going to be generations of people who live on the Housatonic."
"We really worked hard to find the best balance point," Spalding said. "Sometimes when you’re at that point, those on opposite sides realize they’re not getting all they want. I’m sure everyone’s going to say, ‘I wish it were stronger in my direction.’ That’s the challenge of the Rest of River."
But he acknowledged that some key questions remain unresolved -- such as the route of trucks bearing contaminated sediment and soil to a federally or state-licensed disposal facility out of state.
"At the end of the day," he said, "I think this is going to stand up pretty well to everyone who sees the challenge. But if you only care about your issue, then you can find a lot of fault. If you share the larger goal of the community -- we’ve got to get some PCBs out of the system or we’ve got to get them capped -- they’ll see this as a pretty strong plan that balances a lot of challenges."
A public informational session is set for Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St. What’s likely to be a formal 60-day public comment period begins June 25.
The current EPA proposal would cost GE an estimated $619 million to dredge, excavate, remove and transport contaminated material, and to cap PCB "hot spots" along a 10.5-mile route from Pittsfield’s Fred Garner Park to Woods Pond in Lenox.
To reach Clarence Fanto:
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