Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Parties digging in for prolonged battle over Housatonic cleanup

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LENOX >> Don't expect any help from Gov. Charlie Baker as lawyers for the Environmental Protection Agency and GE squabble over how to resolve their potentially irreconcilable differences over removing toxic PCBs from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield.

Baker has now made it clear that the dispute is a separate issue from the company's relocation of its global headquarters from Fairfield, Conn., to the South Boston waterfront.

Follow the money: GE wants to cut in half, and then some, the estimated $613 million cost (over 13 years) of the cleanup ordered by the EPA in its "intended final decision" for the Rest of River cleanup.

GE is valued at $294 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Annual revenue was $117 billion in 2015, and it ranks eighth on the Fortune 500 list of top companies.

In order to lure GE to Massachusetts, the state and the city of Boston dangled incentives worth up to $145 million in tax relief and spending on new roads and parking facilities.

Based on what Baker stated, the deal includes a hands-off policy by his office as GE and the EPA try to bridge their chasm-like gap through "dispute resolution." Absent an agreement, the project to rid the river of most of the likely cancer-causing PCB pollution could go to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

GE fouled the Housatonic from its Pittsfield transformer plant for nearly a half century until 1977, when the EPA banned consumption of fish from contaminated sections of the river. That was two years before the government banned the use of PCBs.

'A separate issue'

Appearing on WGBH Radio in Boston during the "Ask the Governor" segment this past week, Baker said:

"If GE wanted to come and locate in Massachusetts, we'd be perfectly happy to talk about that, but the larger question associated with their dispute and their engagement with the EPA around the cleanup of the Housatonic is a separate issue and should be dealt with separately." He added that he has "not talked much at all with GE about the river."

State Auditor Suzanne Bump offered her own view in a Boston Herald radio appearance.

"As someone who now makes their home in the Berkshires, in the village of Housatonic I'm well aware of the fact that the river has been so polluted by PCBs because of GE's presence some decades ago in Pittsfield. It's so polluted that you can't eat fish from the river, and there is a great deal of contention that has been going on for years as to how much more of the river they need to clean up."

Bump had this to way about GE's move to Boston: "I'm not ready to say that GE shouldn't be welcomed here, that there won't be some benefit, but I do think that we need to have some eyes open about the pros and cons."

Crucial differences

It would be hopelessly naive for me to suggest that GE take the $140 million Boston-relocation incentives and apply them to partially offset the cost of the river project here.

Hopeless, because of these crucial differences between the company and Washington.

• GE wants contaminated soil and sediment disposed into a landfill near Woods Pond in Lenox instead of shipping it to a licensed out-of-state facility. The company claims it would save more than $250 million, but the local "solution" is a non-starter with the community, the EPA and certainly the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which requires out-of-state disposal.

• Woods Pond is the most contaminated section of the river. The EPA proposes a thorough cleansing of PCBs. GE wants to save $130 million by removing only 13 percent of the toxins. According to company Vice President of Global Operations Ann Klee's harshly worded letter to the EPA, "out-of-state disposal will be no more protective of human health or the environment than on-site disposal in a secure, state-of-the-art facility."

Both points appear non-negotiable, as it's hard to imagine the EPA ever agreeing to GE's demand to override the state's regulations on hazardous-waste disposal.

"These regulations should be waived in their entirety," Klee wrote. She accused the federal agency of an "arbitrary, capricious, unlawful" river remedy.

An 'outrage'

The EPA also gets hit by some local environmental advocates, notably Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative. He blasted the government's plan as one of the weakest waterway cleanups ever proposed, an "outrage" reflecting the company's position that a massive project would destroy the river in order to save it.

What some of these critics favor is a more drastic cleanup costing close to $1 billion and requiring 50 years (yes, half a century) to complete. EPA officials say their solution, the third most-aggressive out of nine plans considered, would reduce PCBs in fish to negligible levels after 13 years.

Next Thursday's quarterly meeting of the EPA's Housatonic Citizens Coordinating Committee meeting, to be held in the Lenox Library at 5:30 p.m., should be especially revealing.

With Woods Pond well-frozen, ice fisherfolk have set up their usual midwinter camps for "catch and release" sport fishing. But several I've spoken with have insisted they would eat the fish that they consider harmless.

Some people hope that the river restoration along the especially bucolic 10.5 mile stretch never happens as it would massively disrupt the riverbanks, shoreline, the waterway itself and nearby residential areas.

Their wish is unlikely to come true. But for many of us, whatever cleanup does occur won't start, and certainly won't finish, in our lifetimes.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com.


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