Community forums set on proposed Housatonic River cleanup

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LENOX — Two community forums are set to explore several key issues in the legal tangle between GE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the planned cleanup of PCBs from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield.

The first, organized by Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative, is at the Lenox Town Hall at 7 p.m. Friday. It will include leaders of several other environmental groups that have studied the EPA's "intended final decision" detailing the scope of the work to be performed by GE.

GE is sharply contesting the government's "Rest of River" plan for a $619 million,13-year dredging, excavation and restoration of "hot spots" along the river from Fred Garner Park in southeast Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox and points south.

One of the flash points involves the location of a disposal site for contaminated sediment and soil to be removed from the riverbed and its banks.

The EPA is seeking shipment of the PCBs by truck and possibly rail to a licensed out-of-state facility. GE is demanding a much less costly alternative, which it contends is safe, by using an unspecified nearby landfill to bury and cap the contaminants.

In addition, the EPA Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council, which monitors river cleanup activities, will present an update on the Rest of River plan at the Lenox Library from 5:30 to 7:45 p.m. Feb. 24.

The CCC's agenda includes an EPA report on the dispute resolution process and "location of GE's proposed upland disposal facilities."

Gray described the question of "whether a dump is still on the table for Berkshire County" as a No. 1 issue for exploration at his forum. In a phone interview, he emphasized the long-term commitment by the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection to avoid a local disposal site.

He said that HRI also seeks to clear up "confusion" over the percentage of PCBs to be removed from the 10.5 mile stretch of the river from Pittsfield to Lenox under the EPA's current plan. The agency has stated that after the cleanup is completed, 89 percent of the likely cancer-causing chemicals that have been flowing over the dam just south of Woods Pond would be removed.

But Gray maintains that "we really don't know how many PCBs they're going to be leaving in the river because so many were dumped and there's no tracking system."

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, flowed into the river from GE's electrical transformer plant in Pittsfield for decades until the U.S. government banned the chemical in 1977. Gray cited a 1993 state DEP report that there were 44,000 pounds of the contaminant in the river, but his organization, founded 25 years ago, believes the amount is far higher.

A key question, Gray said, is whether the river will fully "recover" under the EPA cleanup scenario.

Among the participants in the Friday evening forum are Dennis Regan, Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association, as well as representatives from the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield and the Housatonic Environmental Action League (HEAL), based downstream in Cornwall Bridge, Conn.

Gray outlined additional topics up for discussion, including the fate of contaminated "sensitive areas" adjacent to the river such as vernal pools, and the extent of the PCB removal plan for Woods Pond, "one of the most highly contaminated areas," he said.

Late last month, GE detailed its strong objections to the EPA's Rest of River remedy. In a letter to EPA regional leaders in Boston, the company's vice president of global operations Ann Klee contended that the government plan is "not a common-sense solution."

Even as informal mediation continues, GE has invoked a legal strategy, "formal dispute resolution," as the next step in what's shaping up as a lengthy confrontation.

The company blasted the government's cleanup decision as "arbitrary and capricious," as well as a violation of the legally binding Consent Decree involving GE, EPA, the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, the city of Pittsfield and other stakeholders.

The document filed in 2000 in U.S. District Court in Springfield, governs specifics of all PCB removal projects for the entire 125-mile river from Pittsfield south through western Connecticut. GE accuses the EPA of breach-of-contract and of exceeding its authority by including cleanup requirements that the company claims are not part of the original decree.

According to GE, disposing of PCB-contaminated material in a nearby landfill, along with a less extensive Woods Pond excavation and capping project, would save about $380 million.

But the government favors out-of-state disposal of about 1 million cubic yards of soil and sediment removed from more than 400 acres along the 10.5 miles of the river, as well as a thorough cleaning followed by a deepening of Woods Pond.

By the end of this month, the EPA is expected to issue a formal response to GE's rejection of its plan. GE would then have two weeks to issue a counter-response. The next step would be a binding decision by senior officials at the EPA regional headquarters in Boston.

If the company rejects that ruling, the case would be taken to the government's Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C., and then, if there's no resolution, the dispute could wind up in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

If you go ...

What: Housatonic River Initiative Forum to explore issues raised by the EPA's "intended final decision" for a $619 million PCB removal project

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Lenox Town Hall, 6 Walker St.;

Information: 413-243-3353.

What: EPA Housatonic Citizens Coordinating Council meeting, including update from the EPA on the status of the Rest of River project, including the location of contaminant-disposal sites

When: 5:45 p.m. Feb. 24

Where: Lenox Library, 18 Main St.


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