Conservation groups seek special label for Housatonic

Monday, July 21
PITTSFIELD — Several conservation groups are seeking a special environmental designation for the upper stretch of the Housatonic River, a move that could shape the PCB cleanup and restoration by giving the state a larger say in the process.

If successful, the state designation — called an Area of Critical Environmental Concern — would also add a layer of conservation standards, raise the levels of environmental review and encourage stewardship of the nearly 1,300-acre parcel.

It would also bar dredging the river and landfilling the contaminated soils on the site without a state-granted waiver. This alone would prompt rethinking the cleanup and restoration methods like those carried out in the Housatonic in Pittsfield, according to Save the Housatonic, an organization comprised of the Berkshire League of Sportsmen, Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Green Berkshires Inc., and Massachusetts Audubon Society. The group plans to unveil its plan at a public meeting on Thursday, Aug. 7, at 7 p.m., in the Lenox Town Hall.

The area's boundary would encompass the river south of Memorial Park in Pittsfield to about two miles south of Woods Pond in Lenox and includes October Mountain to the east — all land located in Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee and Washington.

"Everyone wants to see the river cleaned," said George S. Wislocki, a director of Green Berkshires. "But we want to do it thoughtfully and carefully — that's the urgency."

The group is the latest to surface in opposition to a GE plan to remedy PCB — or polychlorinated biphenyl — pollution found in the Housatonic below the point where the east and west branches meet. GE's proposal calls for dredging the first five miles of river and covering the next five miles and Woods Pond with a thin layer of sand.

The EPA has said it would seek major changes to GE's proposal, but growing public opposition to an invasive cleanup has delayed the agency's response. Last month, state Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles asked the EPA to wait so that alternatives could be discussed. Meanwhile, nearly three dozen citizen groups and civic organizations have formed the Housatonic Clean River Coalition to demand that new cleanup methods be considered and that the public be granted a larger role in the coming decisions.

All of the cleanup is being performed under the terms of a settlement that was finalized in October 2000. GE, the EPA, the state and the city of Pittsfield all signed onto that deal, which has guided the cleanup of the river and GE's plant since.

But Tad Ames, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said the cleanup that has already been performed along a two-mile stretch of river in Pittsfield is not an appropriate way to fix the rest of the river.

GE and the EPA dredged the first two miles over a six-year period. They then armored the banks with rip-rap — heavy stones and soil — to prevent erosion. Critics have said the river now looks "channelized" and lost its natural beauty.

"No otter is going to want to walk the walk on a thing like that every day," said George Darey, of Lenox, who is also chairman of the state Fisheries & Wildlife Board.

An ACEC "would not prevent a cleanup, but it would make the cleanup pay more attention to the delicacy of the river," Ames said. "We need to take from what we learned in Pittsfield ... and do it better. It doesn't change the fundamentals of the cleanup, but (it makes one ask) what can we do better?"

At the end of August, Save the Housatonic will file the nomination paperwork for the Area of Critical Environmental Concern with state Environmental Affairs Secretary Bowles. After that, a public hearing will be held on it. Bowles will have final say on the designation.

Eagle reporter Jack Dew contributed to this story.


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