Untested waters: Labeling the river

Wednesday, October 22
LENOX — As communities and advocacy groups pursue a special designation for the Housatonic River, they are entering untested waters, federal regulators say, where no one is certain how the new designation would affect a coming cleanup.

Last night, state officials gathered in the Town Hall to brief the public on the nomination of the Housatonic as an "area of critical environmental concern," or ACEC.

The state designation is being sought by Save the Housatonic, a coalition of conservation groups concerned that a PCB cleanup led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and performed by General Electric will do irreparable harm to the river's delicate — and polluted — ecosystem.

"We want to give (the state) the tools to go to General Electric and the EPA and say this is an area that needs a special cleanup," said Eleanor Tillinghast of Save the Housatonic.

But Tim Conway, an EPA attorney who has been involved in the PCB cleanup in Pittsfield and the river for more than a decade, said it is not clear how or whether the ACEC would interact with the cleanup, which is governed by a federal settlement that was finalized in 2000.

"We have very little experience in ACEC designations, particularly in a highly contaminated area," Conway said at last night's meeting, which he attended as a member of the audience. "This is new to all of us."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric are working toward a proposal to remove PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, from miles of the Housatonic River. Already, the two have performed a cleanup of the first two miles — from GE's Pittsfield plant to the point where the east and west branches meet. PCBs, which are suspected of causing cancer, were banned in 1977.

Some form of cleanup will likely extend to at least Woods Pond on the Lee and Lenox town line and could go further. GE had proposed dredging five miles of that stretch and covering another five with a layer of sand. In September, the EPA essentially rejected that proposal and asked GE to revise it. The new version is expected to be in federal hands this winter, and the EPA could issue a cleanup order next spring.

The ACEC would apply to nearly 13 miles of river and 12,280 acres surrounding it. It would cover swaths of land in Pittsfield, Lee, Lenox and Washington and impose a thick layer of bureaucratic review on any project that requires a state permit.

So if Lenox wants to build a bike path that runs to Woods Pond, it might have to clear the more rigorous Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act, or MEPA, review.

That might cause some concerns for a handful of landowners who fall in the ACEC territory, including Pittsfield's sewage treatment plant and a scattering of industrial properties. But the ACEC would likely not affect most homeowners, said Elizabeth Sorenson, director of the state's ACEC program; single-family homes are usually exempt from the extra bureaucratic review.

The ACEC program was created in 1973 and designed to give the state the power to protect key natural resources. Nominees are judged on their uniqueness, significance of their ecology, and their cultural value. Run by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the ACEC program is charged with preserving, restoring and enhancing the properties that fall under its designation. There are 28 such areas in the state, including four in Berkshire County.

The state is now reviewing the Housatonic's nomination and will convene three more public information sessions, including one tonight in Pittsfield at 7 p.m. in the City Hall. The state will later hold a formal public hearing to gather input and could issue a final decision early next year.


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