PITTSFIELD — One of the most significant federal projects in Berkshire County remains on hold during the partial government shutdown.
A new year begins with no one at work in Pittsfield on the Housatonic River cleanup. Emails to officials with the Environmental Protection Agency come back with this message: "I am out of office for the duration of the government shutdown."
That means that current and planned steps to confront the General Electric Co.'s legacy of pollution are stalled, particularly with the absence of the federal agency's lead player on the issue — Dean Tagliaferro.
And if the funding impasse in Washington isn't resolved by Monday, the quarterly meeting of the Citizens Coordinating Council set for Wednesday will be canceled, according to Rebecca B. Gilbert, an associate with the Consensus Building Institute.
That group oversees the CCC meetings at the Lenox Library. The sessions, attended by EPA officials and environmental groups, is the main way the public is advised about progress on the river cleanup.
The agenda for the Wednesday meeting was to include an update on mediation that is trying to resolve a dispute over whether polychlorinated biphenyls removed from river sediments and soils, as part of a multiyear, $613 million "Rest of River" cleanup, must be trucked out of Massachusetts, as the EPA now demands. PCBs, a probable carcinogen banned in the U.S. in 1979, were released from GE operations in Pittsfield.
While Tagliaferro is offline for now, emails to his work address are automatically returned with a promise that he will read them when he returns after the shutdown. That same note acknowledges that when it comes to the toxic pollution of the river, an EPA staff member from the Boston office, Bob Cianciarulo, is available to respond to "an urgent issue related to the GE-Pittsfield/Housatonic River site."
Barbara Cianfarini of Pittsfield, co-founder of Citizens for PCB Removal, said she is concerned the shutdown might result in less attention paid to monitoring sites where toxic materials have been sequestered.
"What if something goes unmonitored and the liner of a landfill splits?" Cianfarini asked. "It is concerning." She noted that the EPA hires third-party vendors to help with monitoring and their work might not be interrupted.
"Our government is supposed to be `of the people and for the people' and it doesn't feel like either of those things," Cianfarini said.
Other federal government activities also are on hold in Berkshire County, though the overall impact appears to be small.
At the Silvio O. Conte Federal Building at 78 Center St. in Pittsfield, the Farm Service Agency's door was locked Friday, with a note saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture office is closed "due to the lapse in federal government funding.
"The office will reopen once Congress restores funding," the note says.
But one floor below, the much more frequently visited Social Security Administration office was open for business Friday and receiving a steady stream of people coming through the building's security checkpoint to speak with employees about benefits.
Also open Friday was U.S. Rep. Richard Neal's Pittsfield office, staffed by Cynthia D. Clark.
Clark said she has not yet worked with a constituent seeking help with a problem related to the shutdown. She agreed that Neal's office might be fielding more constituent issues if the Social Security office had been closed.
"That would be huge," Clark said.
While the Farm Service Agency is closed, a different U.S. Department of Agriculture program was still functioning down the hall inside the building, with two staff members at their desks Friday afternoon. The Natural Resources Conservation Service works with farmers and landowners across the region depicted in several large Berkshire County maps adorning the walls.
"We had funding left over, so we could continue operating," said Daniel Tighe, a staff member. But he said the shutdown has some effect. "Our sister agencies are not open," he said.
For municipal governments, the impact of the shutdown will likely not be felt for a while, several officials said.
Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said that, to his knowledge, the shutdown had not been felt by his agency, though he noted that federal funding is key to some of its projects, including environmental work.
The commission manages "brownfields" funding that comes from the federal government and is used to address major environmental degradation that prevents new uses of affected property.
The city of Pittsfield, the largest in the county, isn't yet feeling any pinch, though one could lie ahead, said Matthew Kerwood, the city's director of finance.
"As of now, I haven't seen any disruption," Kerwood said. "There could certainly be an impact down the road."
Kerwood noted that the school department receives federal funding that is channeled through state government. If the shutdown were to affect how the federal government disburses dollars, local schools eventually could feel the effects.
"If there is nobody there to move the money, there would be a cash-flow impact," Kerwood said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.