More than 140 people attend a meeting on the PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School on East Street on Wednesday, June
More than 140 people attend a meeting on the PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School on East Street on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (Gillian Jones | Berkshire Eagle Staff)

LENOX -- Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi voiced deep concern about the "very significant" impact the proposed Rest of River PCB cleanup would have on the city's Housatonic riverfront neighborhoods as well as on roadways, the local economy and tourism.

The cleanup would have major effects on southeast Pittsfield, comparable but not greater than the cleanup of the first 2 miles of the river south of GE's former Pittsfield plant, said Dean Tagliaferro, the Environmental Protection Agency's project manager for the Housatonic restoration.

The Rest of River proposal represents a massive effort to rid the river, its banks and flood plain of most of the toxic PCBs deposited by the company's electrical transformer facility from 1932 to 1977.

Bianchi was assured by Robert Cianciarulo, chief of the EPA's Massachusetts Superfund department, that the federal agency would work closely with cities and towns affected by the project. The $613 million restoration is projected to take 13 years to complete, stage-by-stage, 10 miles downriver from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield.

The cleanup is at least five years away from the first shovels in the ground, because of expected appeals and possible legal action, EPA officials cautioned at Wednesday night's public information session about the cleanup proposal.

Submit comments

Any members of the public who wish to submit formal written comments for consideration by the EPA can mail them, beginning June 25, to Dean Tagliaferro, EPA New England, Weston Solutions, 10 Lyman St., Pittsfield MA 01201. Comments can be e-mailed to r1housatonic@epa.gov or faxed to (617) 918-0028. As of now, the comment period expires Aug. 8 unless there are requests for an extension.

As for more wide-ranging effects on the economy of Pittsfield, Lenox and other towns downstream, the EPA's senior attorney Tim Conroy told Bianchi that there's no provision in federal law for GE to pay compensation for any losses, although the company would be required to repair damage to properties or streets.

Conroy offered to consult with city or town leaders to explore the economic impact in greater detail.

Bianchi was one of 15 members of the public who posed questions and offered comments during the nearly three-hour informational meeting at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School attended by about 150 people.

EPA officials emphasized that the proposal for a GE river cleanup represents a "balanced" approach, seeking a middle ground between the need to remove as many probable cancer-causing chemicals as possible for the well-being of humans and wildlife, and the goal of reducing any drastic, disruptive effects of the project on southeast Pittsfield and Lenox, where the bulk of the PCB dredging and capping would be concentrated.

A formal public comment period on the plan begins on June 25 and will extend into early August or perhaps September, followed by an official public hearing in early autumn.

Questioned by attorney C. Jeffrey Cook on whether state and federal environmental agencies agreed on the scope of river cleanup needed in southeast Pittsfield, Tagliaferro described the state Department of Environmental Protection position as "do what you have to do to meet the human health requirements and don't do any more. Don't do extra excavation to minimize the PCB impacts" on wildlife in the river's flood plain.

Tagliaferro said the EPA's plan is "very close" to the DEP's recommendation.

Cook, who represents the Ward 4 River Watch group of concerned neighbors who live along and near the Housatonic in southeast Pittsfield, questioned how contaminated material would be removed from the area. Tagliaferro said the details remain to be worked out on the route trucks would take to reach a potential depot for rail transport to an out-of-state federal or state-licensed disposal site.

"There are pluses and minuses to using rail," Tagliaferro said. "It leaves a lot of trucks off the road, but you need one central location where all the trucks would go. Is that a good idea or a bad idea? We're very interested in public comment on that."

Tagliaferro offered a rough estimate that 10,000 truck trips per year would be needed during a 10-year excavation project, or close to 30 trips per day, in and out of affected neighborhoods.

Referring to projections on truck traffic, Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, told EPA officials: "You have to be really careful to not over-alarm people, even though I can understand the concern that somebody would have, a vision of 50 trucks rumbling past their house on a day. ... It seems relatively manageable."

In response to southeast Pittsfield resident David Bubriski's question on the potential drifting of PCBs through the air during the project, Tagliaferro acknowledged that "it's a very good question. PCBs do volatize, but GE will have to address that. Air sampling will be required, tarps will cover the stockpiles, there's a spray foam that can keep the vapors down. GE would have to use engineering controls to minimize the impact as much as possible."

Tagliaferro confirmed that the dredging of the river would increase PCB migration through the air.

Michael Kaplan, a Mass Audubon Berkshire Sanctuaries committee member, questioned the cleanup's impact on Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield. Cianciarulo said consideration would be given to reducing disruption in order not to disturb wildlife. But he said it was uncertain whether the site off Holmes Road would be used as a staging area for the project.

"We fully expect GE and the EPA to coordinate with property owners and local governments before moving forward," Cianciarulo said.

In response to a question from Regional Planning Commission senior planner Lauren Gaherty on how long GE would be "on the hook" to review the cleanup and perform additional work if necessary, EPA attorney Conroy assured her that, by law, the company's requirements are "in perpetuity."

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