Seeking a better cleanup

Wednesday, September 10
We applaud the federal Environmental Protection Agency for demanding a cleanup of the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield that doesn't destroy the river and surrounding land in order to save it. The route to this solution is far from clear, but the EPA's demand for major changes to General Electric's proposal for the cleanup constitutes a good beginning.

It is clear that the EPA paid heed to the concerns of Berkshire residents and environmentalists in demanding yesterday that GE make more than 150 revisions or additions to the plan. GE spokesman Peter O'Toole observed that all the stakeholders in the cleanup must work collaboratively and that is what it will take to produce the best cleanup of the river.

The Consent Decree reached in 2000 produced a PCB cleanup of the Housatonic in Pittsfield and various sites around the city that have helped the former "GE town" move forward into an era in which a variety of businesses and culture will be its lifeblood. The cleanup of the first two heavily polluted miles of the river in Pittsfield was not pretty but it was appropriate for an urban river.

The next stage of the cleanup, extending from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield through south Berkshire County to Connecticut, goes through some of the most rural and beautiful regions of the Berkshires and requires a dramatically different strategy. GE's original plan submitted in March was little different from its cleanup in Pittsfield, and that process won't work through the rest of the Berkshires.

GE proposed the construction of a landfill to store an estimated 227,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, which in light of the Allendale landfill site in Pittsfield, which was the weakest link of the Consent Decree, can't and won't happen. A cleanup along the lines of the one in Pittsfield carried through Lenox and South County would devastate the river and its banks, creating an aesthetic disaster that would also affect wildlife, most notably the Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, and proposals for a north-south bike trail through the Berkshires. The EPA's action now provides an opportunity to produce a plan in keeping with the surroundings and explore the viability of new techniques to remove or destroy PCBs that have been developed in the eight years since the signing of the Consent Decree.

The active interest of the Patrick administration in the person of Ian Bowles, the secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, played a key role in the EPA's decision, as Mr. Bowles asked the agency in June to delay its response to the GE plan so the state could express its concerns. In the interim, the Housatonic Clean River Cleanup, a collection of citizens' groups, environmentalists and town agencies, came together to urge the exploration of alternative approaches that would be more friendly to the river and its surroundings. Save the Housatonic, a coalition of four Berkshire environmental groups, formed to seek a special designation for the Upper Housatonic that would raise the standards of the cleanup and give the state a larger role. These voices were heard.

No one likes the ideas of PCBs sitting in the river and along its banks any longer than is necessary, but a cure reached in haste that is worse than the disease is no solution. Robert Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England office, was undoubtedly correct in stating yesterday that it will be "complicated and challenging" to clean the river while protecting it, but if everyone involved shares that goal, the odds on meeting that challenge will increase dramatically.


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