Focus on GE's PCB cleanup shifts to local dumps

Reed Anderson, a Housatonic artist, created this play on the General Electric Co. logo in which he substituted the letters standing for the toxic substance, polychlorinated biphenyls, that is driving a decadeslong cleanup of the Housatonic River.

PITTSFIELD — Even before learning Friday that it must revisit a key Housatonic River cleanup question — where to put toxic materials — the Environmental Protection Agency has been shopping local.

More than a year ago, the agency ordered the General Electric Co. to carry out a 13-year effort to remove a probable carcinogen from the river. It ordered the company to ship soils and sediments laced with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, out of the area.

That became a main point of dispute when the company appealed the order. When a decision came Friday from the nation's top environmental court, the agency seemed to have anticipated that PCBs removed from the river might need to find a home in the Berkshires — to the dismay of environmental groups.

Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, said Saturday that the EPA has been visiting local groups to talk up the idea of consolidating GE's three proposed local PCB disposal sites into one.

Gray said the agency has proposed skipping use of dumps near Rising Pond in Housatonic and on Forest Street in Lee in favor of a larger site on Lane Construction property in Lenox Dale. He said the EPA has tried to build support for that by promising to expand the extent of PCB removal from the river.

Jim Murphy, a spokesman for the EPA's Boston office, said the agency expected to respond to the ruling this coming week. "We just received the decision. We're reviewing it," he said.

Jeff Caywood, director of headquarters communications for GE in Boston, expressed support for the ruling and said the company is committed to "a comprehensive cleanup of the Housatonic Rest of River that fully protects human health and the environment [and] does not result in unnecessary destruction of the surrounding habitat."

He said the company backs work that complies with the 2000 consent decree agreed to by the EPA, GE, and the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

"GE is encouraged the Environmental Appeals Board decided that EPA's proposal did not comply with the consent decree," he said in a statement to The Eagle, in response to questions. "We look forward to working with EPA to fix the plan so we can start the cleanup of the Rest of River."

While Friday's decision from the Environmental Appeals Board upheld most of the provisions that had been challenged in the EPA's planned Rest of River cleanup, the three-judge panel rejected all arguments from local environmental groups.

"We always knew this might happen," said Gray, who for decades has pushed GE to address its history of environmental degradation, stemming mainly from use of PCBs in its electrical transformer business.

The board operates independently from the EPA, but is part of the agency.

"With those kinds of odds, we never thought we were going to win this thing," Gray said of the board's association with the EPA.

While Gray and other environmentalists found their calls for a more extensive cleanup rebuffed, one resident's effort to narrow the scope of work also lost out.

C. Jeffrey Cook of Pittsfield, who filed a brief and attended the board's hearing in Washington last June, lost his bid to trim the sails on the EPA's chosen remedy for the river.

Like Gray, he knew the appeal was a long shot.

"I'm absolutely not surprised by any of this," he said Saturday. "I'm not surprised they didn't listen. You can't use as grounds for any appeal violations of common sense. The EPA is absolutely not following any common-sensical approach."

Cook argues that dredging will do unnecessary damage to the river and is based on risk assessment models that do little to protect human health.

"You can describe what they have as something between ridiculous and absurd," Cook said of the EPA plan. "That's the part of this that has been so frustrating to me."

Long road

PCBs were used by GE in Pittsfield until banned by Congress in 1979. The current cleanup is part of a 2000 consent decree; earlier work has addressed pollution on sections of the river and other sites closest to the former manufacturing in Pittsfield.

Environmentalists rue that the million cubic yards of soils and sediments poised for removal represent only one-third of the extent of PCBs in the river.

Lying between the lines in the board's 154-page decision is a sense of a long road ahead. Already, the cleanup the EPA laid out in late 2016 would take 13 years to complete.

Now, the board's order that the EPA revisit the issue of disposal sites could mean that the start of the work will be pushed back by a year or longer.

Any party dissatisfied by the EPA's course correction on dump locations can file a petition with the EAB asking for a review. From the time of GE's appeal in 2016, it took 15 months for the board to produce the decision it handed down Friday.

That ruling said the EPA's regional office for New England "failed to exercise considered judgment in deciding that the contaminated materials excavated during the cleanup should be disposed off-site."

GE had claimed that off-site disposal could add as much as $250 million to the overall cleanup cost, which the EPA estimates as $613 million.

In the appeal, the agency claimed that its hands were tied on disposal options because the Toxic Substances Control Act's provisions do not allow for a local landfill. But GE countered that the EPA has routinely granted waivers to that — and the board felt that the EPA failed to explain why a waiver would not work in the Housatonic River case.

The EPA must now take a new look at the issue of disposal sites. The board did not spell out how the EPA should resolve the issue.

The EPA's next steps are expected to include public hearings. Given past turnout at community meetings in the Berkshires, opposition to local dumping might be fierce.

'Pitchforks' ready

Sage Radachowsky of Monterey, a member of the local Stop the Dumps group, said about 250 people showed up at a meeting in Housatonic.

"It was 'peasants with pitchforks,'" said Radachowsky, who has a science background. He said people at the meeting carried this message: "We're not going to let them build a dump right here."

"It's so sad that this has to go on for so long — appealing and then losing — just to push it toward a better direction," he said of the cleanup. He believes that Monsanto, which supplied PCBs to GE, should also be held responsible.

"These corporations have poisoned the river and should have to clean it up," Radachowsky said. "They really don't have the right values in their heart. They want to get out of this at the lowest cost."

Reed Anderson of Housatonic lives 100 yards from a possible dump site — one of his reasons for joining Stop the Dumps.

He said Saturday he believes dumping PCBs in the area, close to the river, is "shortsighted and unfortunate."

That same argument was examined at the board's June hearing.

Matthew Pawa, the attorney representing the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, said local dumping made no sense.

"This is not where you put a permanent waste site. Next to a river?" he asked, addressing three judges sitting across the room. "You don't plunk it down in the middle of a community."

That spurred one of the board's members, Judge Kathie A. Stein, to ask, "Are landfills typically built next to a river?"

Anderson, an artist, said people in his neighborhood toggle between feelings of helplessness and denial about the prospect of a PCB dump. For those who feel powerless, he said it goes beyond a sense of being outmatched in size, like Samson and Goliath.

"It's a mouse and Goliath," Anderson said. "I don't think GE recognizes that there are faces here. It's their turn now, whether to be a bully or to own it."

Gray, of the Housatonic River Initiative, also questions the idea of disposing of PCBs near the river. But he is also not eager to see the toxic materials shipped to someone else's neighborhood, calling that a matter of environmental justice.

That's why his group pressed, in its appeal to the EAB, to require that soils and sediments be treated to remove toxins. The board rejected that idea.

"There's one chance in history to get this right," he said. "When you put it in a package, we're getting a terrible cleanup. We wish the community would come out and join us with the notion that one of the most important things we want is a cleanup."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.