Lawmakers urge EPA to stick with out-of-state PCB disposal
PITTSFIELD — Tons of toxic waste removed from the Housatonic River should be sent out of state as planned, three top lawmakers said Thursday, not be buried in Berkshire County.
The question of where sediment containing polychlorinated biphenyls will be disposed is live again, after the nation's top environmental court last month instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to take fresh look at the issue.
In a letter Thursday, three members of the state's congressional delegation called on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to stick with his agency's original demand that the General Electric Co. pay to ship material containing PCBs to licensed facilities outside Massachusetts.
The letter was sent by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, both Massachusetts Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield.
"Completing the Housatonic River Project," they wrote, "is about protecting our environment and public safety. This project is about protecting the health of our families that deserve to be able to fish, hike, and play alongside the river and its banks."
Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, the EPA's regional administrator in Boston, said in a statement that the agency is reviewing the lawmakers' letter.
She pledged support for the cleanup but did not address the disposal-site issue.
"EPA looks forward to working with all parties to discuss next steps and to achieve positive outcomes for the Rest of River cleanup of the Housatonic River," she said.
The EPA ordered out-of-state disposal in October 2016 as part of its 13-year Rest of River cleanup plan. But GE appealed that requirement, and in a ruling Jan. 26, the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington instructed the agency to reconsider the question of sediment disposal.
In its briefs to the court and in testimony, GE's lawyers argued specifically against off-site disposal. They raised questions about the added expense, saying disposal away from the region represented as much as $250 million of the overall $613 million cleanup cost.
Their presentation to the D.C. court came just days after Pruitt, in an agency memo May 22, questioned the expense of environmental cleanups. He said he intended to take personal control of cleanups that would cost $50 million or more.His announcement raised questions about the status of the Housatonic River project, including by the agency's own attorney in Boston.
Environmentalists are concerned that in the wake of the January court decision, the agency that takes a new look at disposal will not the same one that shaped the order in October 2016.
Last May, Pruitt also called for an EPA task force that would "reduce the administrative and overhead costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites, including a re-examination of the level of agency oversight necessary."
In their message to Pruitt, Warren, Markey and Neal appealed to the EPA to make sure that GE "fulfills its commitment ...."
"Specifically, we urge the EPA to uphold its previous finding that any contaminated material removed during the cleanup must be 'shipped off-site to existing licensed facilities for disposal,' " they wrote.
Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, said he is glad to see lawmakers sticking up for the EPA's 2016 order, in the wake of the ruling last month that it review that aspect of the cleanup.
But he said he wished the letter was more adamant.
"I believe that the lawmakers should say that absolutely we won't allow a landfill in Berkshire County. It just isn't strong enough," Gray said of the letter.
Still, Gray said he considered the lawmakers' outreach to Pruitt "a move in the right direction."
GE released an estimated 300 tons of PCBs into the river from the 1930s until the substance, a probable carcinogen, was banned in 1979. The toxin was used in the manufacturing of electric transformers.
The agency's Rest of River plan, which follows earlier cleanup work in Pittsfield, calls for GE to address pollution in a 125-mile stretch of the river. Most of the work will occur in the areas most highly contaminated — in Pittsfield, Lee and Lenox.
In their letter, the lawmakers note the years of work that went into crafting the EPA's cleanup order, including public comments and expert advice from the state's Environmental Protection and Fish and Game departments.
"In short, this plan was meticulously vetted by the EPA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and determined to be in the best interest of the people of Western Massachusetts," the letter said.
The lawmakers tell Pruitt that there is no licensed facility for the disposal of PCBs in Massachusetts.
"To allow local disposal of GE's toxic waste scraped from the riverbed would be incompatible with Massachusetts state law and a complete disregard of the affected Massachusetts communities who have been plagued with this corporate pollution for far too long," the letter said.
The letter closes: "We urge the EPA to insist that GE be a responsible corporate neighbor by cleaning the Housatonic River. In doing so, the EPA should respect existing Massachusetts laws regarding toxic waste disposal, hear and respect the concerned voices of Western Massachusetts, and require that the carcinogenic PCBs be deposited in a federally licensed out-of-state disposal site."
Like Gray, Jane Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield was disappointed but not surprised by the environmental court's decision.
None of the requests submitted by environmental groups were backed in the ruling, including Winn's efforts to change how the cleanup would address the issue of the seasonal water bodies known as vernal pools.
She said she fears the EPA will move to allow local dump sites for PCBs.
"They're bowing to the corporate interests and they're creating more waste dumps," Winn said. "I'd rather see fewer dumps."
According to Gray, the regional staff of the EPA has already proposed creating a waste dump in Lenox Dale. That planning has been in progress since before the environmental court ruled, but after Pruitt's declarations about reconsidering what constitutes "necessary" oversight.
While the lawmakers argue there is no licensed disposal facility in Massachusetts, it is possible that the EPA, using the pre-emption power of the federal government, could create one to receive tainted sediments from the Housatonic River, Gray said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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