“The people of the Berkshires have not been heard.”
Those were the words of Andrew Proto, but they captured a shared sentiment at the final public hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to remove pollutants from the Housatonic River.
Commenters, who joined by phone or by Adobe Connect, leveled criticism at the lack of opportunities for residents to provide input before the EPA agreed to a deal that would create a Lee landfill to hold a low level of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable carcinogen. Written comments are open through Friday, although several parties — including three Connecticut Congress members — have requested an extension of the comment period through at least Nov. 20.
Largely Lee residents concerned that the proposed landfill could leak — as well as hurt property values — expressed a feeling that the agreement allowed General Electric to pay the minimum for its pollution of PCBs into the Housatonic for nearly a half-century.
“GE needs to take full responsibility to safely remove this contaminated soil,” Proto said. “Otherwise in five, 10, 15 years, we’re going to be back here with another three-hour comment meeting discussing why no one can drink the water in Lee.”
“There is no cleanup, only containment of toxic substances,” said Judy Herkimer, executive director of the Housatonic Environmental Action League.
EPA officials moderated the meeting but did not respond to comments. They said the comments would be taken into account for any decisions the EPA makes.
The hearing itself was also a target of criticism. Fifty-nine speakers had been listed in the speaker queue to give three-minute comments. Several were cut off, some had difficulty connecting and still more said they were initially allotted five minutes rather than three.
"We thought it was pitiful," said Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative. "They didn’t have their tech side together, and we think a lot of people got left off the calls."
One speaker said others who wanted to speak were unable to sign up because the event was full. Of the listed speakers, however, 25 of them did not speak when their turn came up.
"I fear that they weren't able to get on," Gray said.
“If these public hearings are for you to get feedback from the public, then listen,” said Monica Ryan, a Lee resident. “We’re all telling you we don’t want it. Please don’t allow a dump in Lee. Please don’t.”