EPA won't budge on extending comment period for river-cleanup plan

A crowd packs First Congregational Church in Lee in February, during a community discussion on cleanup of the Housatonic River. The Environmental Protection Agency won't extend the citizen comments period on its plan to remove pollutants from the river, after having faced several calls to extend the comment period, which ended Friday.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rejected calls to extend the citizen comments period on its plan to remove pollutants from the Housatonic River.

The agency has faced several calls to extend the comment period, which ended Friday, most recently from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Sen Christopher Murphy and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut. Those lawmakers penned a Tuesday letter in which they cited the coronavirus pandemic, "a digital divide" and the scope of the agreement as reasons to extend the comment period at least through Nov. 20 to give more time for residents to review the agreement.

In a Friday email, EPA Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel wrote to the lawmakers that the EPA concluded that a further extension "was not warranted."

"While we appreciate the challenges presented by COVID-19 and other concerns outlined in your letter, we believe we have provided ample notice, information, and opportunity to comment for all affected stakeholders," Deziel wrote in the letter, which was sent by email to the Connecticut lawmakers Friday.

Previously, the EPA granted a three-week written comment extension and added an additional virtual public hearing after it faced extension requests from advocates like Lee's Housatonic River Initiative and the Connecticut-based Housatonic Environmental Action Team.

Those groups say the agreement — it was reached through mediation with the EPA, the General Electric Co., and local municipalities and groups — fails to hold General Electric accountable for polluting the river for nearly a half-century. In particular, they take issue with the proposed construction of a landfill in Lee to hold material containing polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen.

At the EPA's final virtual public hearing, held Tuesday evening, some commenters asked the agency to extend comment to when hearings were safe to hold in person. A few people reported technological difficulties connecting to the call.

Comment had begun July 14, after the EPA released its draft permit modification July 9. The EPA has said all comments will be taken into account when it makes decisions.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.