GE strongly decries EPA's 'Rest of River' plan to clean Housatonic

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General Electric has dumped a bucket of ice water on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal for a $619 million, 13-year cleanup of PCBs from the Housatonic River in southeast Pittsfield and five Berkshire County communities downstream.

The company's 128-page document with a sheaf of supplementary material was filed at midday on Monday, the last day the EPA had set for official comment on its plan.

Using strong language, GE argued that the government's Rest of River remedy "is far larger and more destructive than remedies that have already been rejected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as doing more harm than good."

The company asserted that the EPA proposal far exceeded the anticipated scope of the remedy outlined in the legally binding Consent Decree and cleanup permit negotiated by stakeholders, including the state and the city of Pittsfield, that led to the first phase of the Housatonic River cleanup.

The decree was approved by the U.S. District Court on Oct. 27, 2000, and covered PCB removal from two miles of the river in Pittsfield south of the former GE transformer plant in Pittsfield, as well as from Silver Lake and nearby land. In a followup agreement, GE compensated the city through a $25 million economic development fund, including $15 million to help develop the William Stanley Industrial Park.

GE accused the EPA of ignoring its own previous cleanup guidelines. "The proposed remedy is almost three times larger than the one proposed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," the document asserted, and is also larger than all but two of the nine alternatives studied by the federal agency.

According to the company, the federal proposal "would involve more removal, from more areas, with more negative impacts, and more cost. So it shouldn't be surprising that there is no consensus about the Rest of River remedy."

Describing a breakdown of negotiations between the company and the EPA last year, GE contended that it "was prepared to undertake one of the largest river cleanups in history," consistent with the requirement of the original Consent Decree and the resulting cleanup permit.

While the company acknowledged its agreement that "the Rest of River remedy must be fully protective of human health and the environment," any solution also "requires a delicate balancing of the positive and negative impacts of such an effort." It stated that "overall protection of human health and the environment" must be balanced against "short-term and long-term negative impacts on the community and the ecosystem, as well as cost."

EPA had no immediate official reaction to the GE broadside. According to Jim Murphy, an agency spokesman, the company's response and all other public comments received by the Oct. 27 deadline will be studied and evaluated over the next few weeks and months.

In its harshest criticism of the EPA plan, GE's comment declared that "the Consent Decree and the permit do not allow EPA to propose a remedy that will do more overall harm than good, or to ask GE to spend unlimited amounts of money and effort to achieve speculative or minimal incremental benefits."

Although the company admitted that "PCBs are undeniably present in the Rest of River," it argued that the chemical agents have been there for over 70 years and that the river, its forested banks, floodplains and wetlands, including "dozens of irreplaceable vernal pools, all continue to support a rich variety of plant and animal life. Indeed, the Rest of River is home to many state-listed rare species that have not been able to maintain their footholds elsewhere."

GE described the Housatonic in southeast Pittsfield and downstream as a "vulnerable and even a fragile place," and warned that virtually any effort to clean up the PCBs will disrupt it to some extent.

"Any aggressive cleanup effort will disrupt it beyond recognition and repair – clear cutting its forests, removing its delicate vernal pools, dredging the riverbed and wetlands, eliminating rare steep riverbanks carved by time and nature – destroying the habitats provided by these sensitive areas and destroying or displacing their many animal and plant inhabitants," the document claimed.

Although the company described the EPA Rest of River proposal unveiled May 31 as taking "a much different direction than anticipated and unlikely to result in a consensus," it did not slam the door on an eventual settlement.

"GE remains committed to implementing a responsible remedy that addresses the PCBs remaining in the Rest of River in a way that is consistent with the requirements of the Consent Decree, the permit, and EPA precedent," the comment read.

Despite the firm rejection of the plan, EPA officials who declined to be identified indicated the GE response was expected and represents Round One of a prolonged battle.

The EPA's timetable remains the same for the start of work on a Rest of River removal of the likely cancer-causing chemicals released into the river from the Pittsfield plant from the 1930s to 1977, when PCBs were outlawed by the federal government. The years 2019 or 2020 are expected to be the earliest for shovels in the ground, the officials said.

View GE's response here.

Call Clarence Fanto at (413) 637-2551.

On Twitter: @BE_cfanto


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