PITTSFIELD -- Residents who voiced concerns about the planned Rest of River environmental cleanup of Housatonic River sites focused Thursday on truck traffic, cleanup methods and other aspects not yet finalized.
In the first of two public input sessions the city is holding, about 20 people gathered at Herberg Middle School to hear a brief overview of the proposed cleanup plan, which was prepared by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to deal with PCB pollution resulting from former GE industrial operations in the city.
The city will hold a second information and comment session at 7 p.m. Sept. 4 at the school, said Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi. In addition, the EPA plans a formal hearing on its draft cleanup plan in Lenox on Sept. 23, prior to the end of the public comment period Oct. 1.
"We want to hear from you," Bianchi said, adding that comments from city residents will be forwarded to the EPA and will help inform the city's own response to the cleanup plan.
The city's Community Development Director Douglas Clark recounted how a consent decree hammered out between GE and state and federal regulators during the late 1990s preceded the first cleanup of PCBs and other pollutants from GE industrial sites and also in a first section of the river downstream from the facilities to Fred Garner Park.
After considerable further study, analysis and comment from interested parties, the EPA has now proposed a cleanup plan for the rest of the affected river south in Berkshire County.
James McGrath, the city's Park, Open Space and Natural Resources Program manager, said the plan proposes removing PCB soils from 42 acres of river bed and 2.5 acres of backwater areas, along with 26.5 acres of floodplain in Pittsfield -- all south of Fred Garner Park.
About 240,000 cubic yards of material would be removed under the plan for shipment to disposal sites outside the area, and some clean fill will be brought in to replace excavated sites. The project is estimated to take five years in total and could involve truck traffic averaging 34 trips per day.
Along the entire affected Housatonic in the county, a total of 990,000 cubic yards of material would be removed over 13 years along the river in the county, estimated to cost $613 million.
The EPA plan in scope would fall between a complete removal process and taking no action to remove the pollution, allowing the environment to recover slowly over many years.
C. Jeffrey Cook commented Thursday that it will be impossible to know exactly what the effects will be on neighborhoods until more detail is provided on how the removed material will be trucked and over which routes. Until that is provided, he said, it will be difficult for residents to offer comments.
"We are not dealing with details about what we can expect," Cook said.
Valerie Anderson said she was encouraged that the cleanup in Pittsfield is expected to last five years, rather than for the full 13 years of the river cleanup in the county. She also said she appreciated the fact the EPA is expected to consider evolving cleanup technology as it goes through the process to take advantage of any improved methods.
Joseph Fox and others commented on what has been described as a balanced approach by the EPA to remove as much material as possible while seeking to lessen the impact on the river environment and on sensitive wildlife areas.
"I hope the EPA treats me as a sensitive area, as it treats the frogs and the birds," said Fox, a 45-year resident of Lucia Drive.
James Murphy, from the EPA, urged anyone with concerns or questions to voice or send in their comments, promising, "we will take them under consideration and we will respond to all of them in writing."
Murphy said that in such cleanup projects, "we always end up making changes to some degree" in the draft plan, based on input received.
Even if those alterations are made quickly after the Oct. 1 comment deadline, he said, the process also will involve responses to the plan by GE and other parties, pre-design studies and further opportunities to comment, "and then it will be several years before anything happens [in terms of field work]."
PCBs were used in industrial lubricants from the 1930s though 1977, when the carcinogen was banned by the federal government. The pollutant was by then in soils around GE facilities and had entered the river through storm drains and other sources, settling in river banks, beds and adjacent wetlands sites.
Comments to the EPA should be submitted via email to R1housatonic@epa.gov; fax to (617) 918-0028; or mailed to Dean Tagliaferro, EPA New England, c/o Weston Solutions, 10 Lyman St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.
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