State considers new protection status for Housatonic
The Executive Office of Environmental and Energy Affairs has set four public meetings this month to consider whether 12,280 acres of land along the Housatonic should be designated an "area of critical environmental concern," or ACEC. Proponents of the designation say it will give the state greater say in a looming PCB cleanup.
"I encourage town boards and commissions, environmental organizations, and interested citizens to participate in the public review process," said Ian Bowles, secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "This is an opportunity for residents of these communities to learn about the natural and cultural resources of the nominated area, as well as the benefits and protections that come with ACEC designation."
Bowles' staff will now review the 156-page application and will convene a formal public hearing in the winter. Within 60 days of that hearing, Bowles will have to decide whether to grant the designation.
The Housatonic is already the subject of one of the nation's largest PCB cleanups. General Electric and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have removed the chemical from the first two miles of the river and are now working out the details of how to deal with the contamination south of Pittsfield.
An early proposal from GE called for dredging five miles of the river south of the Fred Garner River Park in Pittsfield and covering the next five miles and Woods Pond in Lenox with a thin layer of sand. It would also have dug up 38 acres of the floodplain and created a landfill to store 227,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sediment.
The EPA has rejected the plan and called for major changes; GE is expect to respond early next year. Meanwhile, dozens of organizations and citizen groups have protested the proposal, arguing it is too destructive of the habitat while not going far enough to remove the contamination.
A coalition of conservation groups formed Save the Housatonic, which organized the ACEC nomination. The group argues that the special designation will allow Massachusetts officials to demand a better cleanup while protecting the sensitive habitat that lines the river, including farms, two wildlife sanctuaries, and homes.
Eleanor Tillinghast, a member of Save the Housatonic and Green Berkshires, said the group was pleased at the state's speedy response.
"I am hoping that a lot of people will turn out, and that people will have questions and offer support," she said.
Copies of the ACEC proposal are available for review at the public libraries and town or city halls in Lee, Lenox and Pittsfield, and at the Becket Athenaeum. It is also available online at savethehousatonic.org.
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