Crowd backs river status

Friday, January 30
LENOX — With a final burst of public comment, proponents and opponents of granting the Housatonic River a special environmental designation made their case to state officials Thursday night, a final step in the months-long process.

More than 175 people filed into the auditorium of Lenox Memorial High School to address whether the Housatonic should be named an "area of critical environmental concern," or ACEC. The state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs will now weigh the application and issue a decision within 60 days.

The designation was proposed by a coalition of environmental and conservation groups and endorsed by dozens of politicians, community boards and citizens. They are concerned that a PCB cleanup led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and performed by General Electric will do irreparable harm to the Housatonic and its ecosystem.

Spring decision expected

The EPA is expected to announce its decision in the spring. The coalition — known as Save the Housatonic — hopes that the ACEC designation will give the state and its residents a stronger voice as the EPA fine tunes and implements the cleanup.

While state officials looked on, nearly three dozen people spoke for or against the ACEC on Thursday night, their comments recorded by video camera for review over the next two months. The state will continue to accept written comments for 10 days and will announce its decision by March 30.

Creating a stewardship

Representatives from the Massachusetts Audobon Society, Lenox Board of Selectman, Berkshire County League of Sportsmen, and Trout Unlimited were among the majority of speakers who urged the state to grant the ACEC.

"While we welcome, with a measure of trepidation, the pending cleanup of PCB contamination in the river and its floodplain ... we also recognize that the cleanup itself poses a threat of its own to the great resources of this area," said Tad Ames, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. "By nominating the ACEC, we seek to ensure that best possible practices are used."

The ACEC would apply to nearly 13 miles of river and 12,280 acres surrounding it. It would cover swaths of land in Pittsfield, Lee, Lenox and Washington and give the state a new level of bureaucratic review over any project that needs a state permit. It would also create a stewardship council that would monitor the property.

One after the other, speakers testified to the river's natural beauty, its excellent fishing, and the diversity of its ecosystem. Rene Laubach of the Massachusetts Audobon Society said the river is a crucial layover for 200 species of migratory birds. Jay Baver, producer of the television fishing show "On the Water," said the episode filmed on the river's Woods Pond was the highest rated in that show's six-year history, and the pond's northern pike draw anglers from across New England.

"Woods Pond is a little economic engine," Baver, a Lenox resident, said. "The only thing we have to do to nurture and grow that economic engine is protect it."

But economic concerns weighed on the minds of the few ACEC opponents who spoke on Thursday night.

Richard Vinette, executive director of the Lee Community Development Corporation, a private nonprofit, said the special status would make it harder to breathe new life into shuttered paper mills.

"We believe the proposed boundaries (of the ACEC) will have a substantially negative effect in discouraging economic development projects, job creation, and investment in this industrial corridor," Vinette said, adding, "we believe there are sufficient regulatory tools in place already, and another layer would invite unintended consequences."

Vinette said proponents of the ACEC have failed to demonstrate that it would give the state a stronger voice in the PCB cleanup; it has offered no legal analysis nor been able to cite a precedent. "If it is not an effective tool for restoring the state's influence, then why are we contemplating it?" he asked.

Lane Construction operates a hot-asphalt plant within the ACEC's boundaries and — under the terms of a state permit — draws water from the Housatonic. Lane District Manager Donald Mason said the company worries that an extra layer of environmental review would threaten the renewal of that permit, and the company opposed inclusion of its property in the designation.

The company's product "is essential to operating and maintaining the roads and bridges in Berkshire County," Mason said. "Our operations provide needed jobs to local residents, and businesses depend upon our services and the products we provide. ... While we are a strong supporter of environmental stewardship, the ACEC designation would inhibit valuable uses of this property now and in the future."

Still, the proponents argued that an ACEC title will not get in the way of industry, but will guarantee that the use of the land doesn't destroy it.

"It does not preclude development," said Carl Kronberg of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, "but creates a partnership and encourages developers to work with a community. In my experience, it has been a positive, except when you have developers who don't want any restraints and don't want anyone looking over their shoulder."


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