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The phone line open, callers got their chance Wednesday to say what they think of the latest Housatonic River cleanup.

First-time caller?

Not likely, not after years of similar public hearings. But, the day's two call-in and online sessions, convened by the Environmental Protection Agency amid coronavirus pandemic precautions, marked the first time the agency took views on a plan that includes PCB disposal in Berkshire County. 

And that proposed Lee dump took the heat, for the most part.

"I feel that toxic is toxic. I don't know how you want to spin it," said Deborah Kelly, of 74 West St. in Lenox. "The public needs much more time to deal with this."

The EPA will hold another online and telephone comment session Sept. 15. Written comments will be accepted through Sept. 18.

After that, the agency legally is bound to respond to the comments, as it has with previous cleanup plans, then produce a final version of the plan it unveiled July 9.

That document was the fruit of a settlement agreement with the General Electric Co., the polluter, and with local municipalities and groups that took part in closed-door mediation over the past two years.

GE must send at least 100,000 cubic yards of PCB-laden materials, including any containing 50 parts per million or more of the toxin, to an out-of-state facility. But, the EPA will allow the company to create a 20-acre landfill at a former quarry in Lee to receive more than 1 million cubic yards of material.

As part of the deal, GE agreed to do more to remove PCBs than the EPA's 2016 permit required, adding elements to the cleanup, including steps to remove, rather than cap, 100 acres of soils that contain PCBs.

'Bad behavior'

The secrecy of the months spent in mediation brought condemnation throughout Wednesday's comments.

Marie Field called in to summon the memory of artist Norman Rockwell and his series of paintings known as the "Four Freedoms." One such freedom is that of speech, as well as public assembly, Field said. And the mediation was hardly that, in her view.

"We were appalled that such a huge decision for our area was being made in mediation by a handful of people," Field told the EPA. She said the plan gives GE "a pass."

"It's just like rewarding bad behavior," she said. A local grassroots movement, No PCB Dumps, opposes the landfill and is considering ways to block it.

Other callers faulted what they see as the "blood money" of the February settlement agreement, which provides $25 million each to Lee and Lenox, with smaller amounts to other towns.

Robert Jones, of Greylock Street in Lee, told the EPA that he lives a few miles from the planned disposal site and grew up in the region.

While Jones said he would leave the science to others, he rapped how the current plan came to be, including secret negotiations among town officials, the EPA and the company.

"I'm terribly opposed to how the decision was arrived at," Jones said, calling out the approval granted by a three-member Lee board. "I beg you to reconsider your decision. There should not be a chemical dump in Lee or anywhere else in Berkshire County."

The current plan allows for local disposal. Previously, the EPA, in a 2016 cleanup order, required GE to ship the polychlorinated biphenyls removed from the river and flood plain out of state.

Kelly, the Lenox resident, questioned why residents in the area were not asked about a local disposal site before the agreement was reached.

"There was no contact with the residents," she said.

Holly Hardman, of Great Barrington, was among several who called for the EPA to slow the process and allow more time for public responses. She said the process smacks of "strong-arm tactics."

"I want river remediation, but I want it done safely," she said. "We now have this misguided plan to reckon with. This plan is being rushed through. Please put the brakes on this plan and do the responsible thing."

Charlie Cianfarini, of Pittsfield, interim executive director of Citizens for PCB Removal, asked the EPA to grant more time for public comment. He offered pointed critiques of the initial work plan filed by GE, saying it raises questions about future oversight of the Lee dump, known as the Upland Disposal Facility. And he questioned whether the plan does enough to deal with the presence of the PCBs that GE put into the environment from its former Pittsfield operations.

PCBs are listed as a probable carcinogen. Cianfarini noted that, even after the cleanup, according to the company's initial statement of work, the toxin will continue to migrate downstream in what he termed substantial amounts.

"We must not allow this inadequate plan to stand, if we care about our communities," Cianfarini said.

The third and final public hearing, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Sept. 15, can be accessed by phone or the internet. People who want to speak must register in advance, the agency says.

Information on how to do that can be found at the EPA's Housatonic River webpage: epa.gov/ge-housatonic.

Through Sept. 18, comments can be emailed to r1housatonic@epa.gov, faxed to 617-918-0028, or mailed to GE-Housatonic River Site Public Comments, EPA Region 1, 5 Post Office Square (Mail Code SEMD-07-01), Boston, MA 02109-3912.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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