Coalition moves to preserve river
The group Save the Housatonic will nominate the river as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC. If successful, the designation would add conservation standards to a 12.9 mile stretch of river and roughly 1,300 surrounding acres, likely requiring special permission from the state for any dredging or landfill within those boundaries.
"We want to give (the state) a tool to negotiate for the best possible cleanup," said Eleanor Tillinghast of Green Berkshires, one of four groups that constitute Save the Housatonic. "And we want to use this tool to encourage people to evaluate cleanup options and how they might affect the river and surrounding lands and neighborhoods."
The Berkshire County League of Sportsmen, Berkshire Natural Resources Council, and Massachusetts Audobon Society have joined Green Berkshires in the new group. They will send the ACEC nomination to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which is expected to hold several public information sessions before rendering a decision, which could come late this year or early next.
The move is the latest iteration of intense local opposition to a proposal by General Electric to remove PCBs from the river as it runs out of Pittsfield and through South County. GE is required to perform the cleanup by the terms of a settlement finalized in October 2000.
The company used PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, until 1977, when the government banned the chemical, which is considered a probable cause of cancer and has been linked to a host of health problems. The EPA's studies have concluded that the pollution in the Housatonic threatens people, wildlife and the ecosystem.
Last night, as more than 100 people filled the auditorium in the Lenox Town Hall, a panel of proponents made the case for the ACEC designation. They projected two pictures on a movie screen: The first showed a stretch of river in Pittsfield that has already been dredged and restored. The stripped banks were lined with sun-bleached rocks and newly planted trees protected against beavers by rings of chicken wire. The next frame showed a verdant curve of Housatonic, shade trees leaning gently over dark undergrowth and green lily pads.
George Wislocki, the former president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said the Pittsfield cleanup was "the turning point. It was plainly clear that this was not what we wanted for this river."
GE is proposing to dredge the first five miles of river south of Fred Garner River Park on Pittsfield's Pomeroy Avenue. It would cover the next five miles and Woods Pond with a thin layer of sand. South of Woods Pond, it would do nothing.
The EPA is the final authority on the cleanup and has already said it will seek major changes to GE's proposal. But opposition from local groups and the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has created a standstill, with the EPA delaying its response to GE.
It is not clear how the ACEC designation would interact with the cleanup settlement. When that deal was finalized in a federal court in 2000, the state signed on, as did the EPA, General Electric, the city of Pittsfield and several additional federal agencies.
While the supporters of the new designation said it would force the EPA to respect the state's wishes, they acknowledged there is a possible loophole: The EPA can waive the state's restrictions, allowing GE to go forward. The state would have the right to appeal, they said, but it is not certain that a court would look favorably on a state that is trying to make changes in 2008 to a deal it signed in 2000.
There are also fears that the push to restrict dredging could stop the cleanup altogether. Benno Friedman, an environmentalist with the Housatonic River Initiative, said that won't happen.
"This is a very useful, very powerful addition to the arsenal" used to fight for the river, he said. "It will help shape the cleanup that is most definitely going to occur. The ACEC will not stop the cleanup, and that is not the intention of anyone associated with the ACEC."
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