Housatonic River communities band together to seek GE compensation
There's strength in numbers as six communities band together to seek financial compensation from GE for the disruption expected during the "Rest of River" PCB cleanup along the Housatonic from southern Pittsfield to Lenox and beyond.
That was the clarion call sounded by Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC), as he urged Selectmen to approve an intergovernmental agreement to play hardball with GE on behalf of Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield.
The Lenox Select Board voted unanimously last week to join the effort. Only Pittsfield's City Council has yet to approve the agreement, and that's expected on Tuesday night with the support of Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, Karns said.
Each community is kicking $10,000 into the kitty to support the efforts of the Newton-based Pawa Law Group hired to negotiate with GE, as well as the BRPC's expenses as the agent for Pittsfield and the five towns.
The cleanup plan to remove PCB contamination along a 10-mile stretch downstream from the East and West Branch confluence of the Housatonic at Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield is a long way off. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's delayed initial proposal is likely to be challenged by GE and may wind up in court, Karns said.
Release of the proposal is still a possibility by early next year, EPA spokesman Jim Murphy told The Eagle on Thursday. But the 16-day partial government shutdown that furloughed most of the agency's staffers rules out a firm prediction "until we get back together and regroup," he said.
PCBs were spilled into the river from GE's Pittsfield electrical-transformer plant from the 1930s until the U.S. government banned the likely cancer-causing chemical in 1977.
Bianchi said the agreement will give the six communities a strong voice -- with the help of Pawa -- and, he hopes, will allow constructive discussions involving both the EPA and GE as the cleanup process continues.
"I think at this point we just want an open discussion, to see if there is any way we can work on this issue [with all parties]," he said.
There are potential economic impacts for the communities that could differ from GE land cleanup work in recent years in Pittsfield, he said, because most of that property was industrial, rather than residential land.
Pittsfield, nevertheless, has the largest section of land along the Housatonic River among the communities, Bianchi said.
He said the inter-community agreement also "gives each community a lot of latitude" and requires unanimous consent on future decisions.
The six-community legal agreement has been two years in the making, Karns said. It focuses on the expected economic disruption to neighborhoods once the cleanup gets underway, as well as projected impacts on businesses, traffic and the tourism industry.
The EPA provided support and a consultant for the economic-impact study unveiled last year.
"At this point," Karns cautioned, "we have no idea whether EPA will ultimately side with what GE would really like, which is no cleanup, let natural processes take their course for the next couple of centuries and the PCBs may disappear. The other end of the scale is to get every ounce of PCBs out of the river environment that you can, which is a 50-year process."
Karns predicted that "they'll come down somewhere in the middle" -- a 15-year cleanup that would involve dredging, removing contaminated sediment and trucking it to a disposal site yet to be determined.
Whatever course of action is decided, he emphasized, "the economic damages are very substantial" with costs starting at $250 million. "We think it may be more on the order of $500 million," Karns said.
He cited residential property-value effects on individuals, which would impact the communities' tax bases.
Owners of 41 properties between Pittsfield and the Stockbridge-Great Barrington town line are awaiting final test results indicating PCB contamination "above allowable limits," Karns said, with a legal requirement to disclose the risks if they try to sell their homes and land.
"If I were one of those property owners, I'd be going to my local tax assessor this year to say I should be getting an abatement," Karns stated.
"This is potentially just the start," he added, noting that additional properties may be required to undergo further testing.
"I think the economic damage potential is very real," he emphasized.
The six-town committee that hammered out the inter-municipal agreement chose the Pawa legal team to do battle with GE for the communities because of its strong track record on environmental issues, according to Karns.
Last April, Pawa won a $236 million case for the state of New Hampshire against ExxonMobil, the result of a lawsuit filed in 2003 against oil companies that added the chemical MTBE to their auto fuel. A jury upheld the full damage award to the state, rejecting ExxonMobil's defense.
In December 2012, the firm's appeal against a state DEP permit for a concrete plant and an asphalt sand and gravel plant in Sheffield was upheld by an administrative law judge who ruled that the plants were causing harmful air pollution and had exceeded allowable noise limits.
According to the agreement, BRPC will serve as the agent for Pittsfield and the five towns to the south along the Housatonic. All decisions will be made by representatives of the six communities, Karns stressed. "Anything of substance has to be done by a unanimous vote," he told the Selectmen, "which means everybody's got to stick together."
Lenox Selectman John McNinch and co-Interim Town Manager Jeff Vincent represent Lenox on the six-community committee.
"The whole theory behind getting this group together was so we speak in one voice to GE," McNinch said. "This is how we're going to negotiate with GE and hopefully get some kind of reimbursement for what's going to happen here. No matter what happens, it's not going to be good."
He noted that Lenox has already budgeted $20,000 for the legal effort.
"Sticking together is a really critical piece," Karns said, "because in this kind of environment, GE is going to want to go to somebody and try to cut a deal. The agreement makes it very difficult for that to happen. ... The communities have sat down and worked through this very positively and in a collegial fashion."
Any municipality can withdraw from the agreement for any reason with 30 days' notice. Additional funds beyond the initial $10,000 investment per community would require approval from the local governments.
"There's not a blank check here," said Karns.
Eagle staff writer Jim Therrien contributed to this story.
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