Clarence Fanto: Rest of River plan deserves our attention


LENOX -- The thrust-and-parry wrangling among government agencies, environmental groups, GE and concerned residents near the Housatonic River is flowing fast and furious, just like the waterway after a heavy rainstorm.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 44-page document made public last weekend -- with reams of supporting material -- outlines nine possible remedies to rid the river of toxic PCBs, a likely cancer-causing agent.

The EPA chose the second-most thorough and costly cleanup approach, a massive project lasting 13 years, costing GE an estimated $619 million, and impacting riverfront neighborhoods in Pittsfield and Lenox with heavy truck traffic and other disruption.

If its proposed solution is adopted, the government agency estimated that, on average, about 90 percent of the PCBs present in the river would be gone.

The most extensive approach, which would require an astounding 52 years to complete at a price tag of $917 million to GE, may remove 97 percent of the PCBs, as measured annually.

Environmental leaders want more and better -- the Housatonic River Initiative (HRI) is advocating a close look at contemporary biotech solutions that could be far less invasive.

GE, while agreeing to study the EPA proposal, put out a statement to The Eagle that could easily be viewed as a rejection: "GE made every effort to reach agreement on a common sense remedy for the Housatonic, one that would remove PCBs, but not destroy the sensitive ecosystem.

"Unfortunately, we were not able to reach an agreement with EPA, despite the significant concessions we made and offering to perform an extensive cleanup project. In fact, GE offered to implement a PCB removal project in the Housatonic Rest of River far larger than the one proposed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

Corporate spokesman Sebastien Duchamp told me that the official statement is not a rejection. He pointed to the following: "We will review EPA’s proposed decision and follow the process provided under the Consent Decree, including submitting comments."

Translation: Look for many months, years, of back and forth involving lawyers and scientists representing the government and the company. Concerned members of the public will weigh in with oral and written comments. Eventually, the EPA, having sifted through all the responses, will issue a final decision telling GE what standards they have to meet while leaving the details of the work plan to the company.

That’s not the end of the line by any means. A national EPA review board in Washington would evaluate any objections to the EPA ruling. Once the review board puts out its judgment, GE, environmental groups or others could file formal appeals to the federal courts.

Given the timeline, those of us over 65 can enjoy hiking along, or canoeing and kayaking on the pristine-looking, bucolic river from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox and beyond for our lifetimes.

But for the next generations, look out! Concerned southeast Pittsfield residents who live near the river fear the effects of extensive excavation and dredging close to their neighborhoods, notably the trucks expected to be rumbling along Holmes Road and New Lenox Road carrying contaminated material to a still-unidentified rail depot for shipping out of state. Property values are likely to be affected during years of heavy reconstruction at the riverbank.

Given that the EPA proposal, in its current form, involves massive dredging, excavation and capping along "hot spots" for 10 miles from Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox, Housatonic Riverkeeper Tim Gray’s emphasis on exploring biotech remedies as a more sensitive approach to the cleanup is worth close scrutiny.

Gray, also the leader of the HRI, is keen on a North Carolina company’s techniques. At an October 2012 presentation in Lenox Town Hall, Chris Young, the owner of Biotech Restorations, explained that while his technology has not been tested on PCBs, it has removed toxic material, such as pesticide residue, from contaminated soil in California.

This approach, if it can be proved effective, could reduce dredging while treating sediment and soil on the spot, an alternative to trucking it away for shipment to federally licensed disposal sites.

Neither the EPA nor GE have closed the door to considering such less-invasive techniques. As a start, Biotech Restoration’s free offer to test its approach on the Housatonic’s PCBs should be welcomed.

On Wednesday, June 18, a critically important meeting on the Rest of River cleanup project will be held at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, starting with informal presentations at 6 p.m. and a formal rollout of the proposal at 7. EPA leaders will host the meeting, and a big turnout of environmental groups and concerned residents is expected.

There are 500 seats in the school’s auditorium. Given the significance of the Housatonic restoration, no matter what shape it takes and how far off it may be, the public information session deserves to be a standing-room-only event.

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto.


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