The five-town Rest of River Municipal Committee plans to take part in efforts to mediate a solution to the impasse over cleanup of probable cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The talks will focus on "hot spots" in a 10-mile stretch of the Housatonic River between southeast Pittsfield and the Lee-Lenox area.
The select boards of Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield all voted in June to authorize their representatives on the committee to participate in a nonbinding mediation effort led by Washington attorney John G. Bickerman.
Other participants include the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Electric Co., which released PCBs into the river, and environmental groups.
If the attempt fails, an extended battle in federal court is considered likely between the federal agency and the corporation, which is downsizing in an effort to steady its foundering financial ship.
Where to dispose of PCBs remains the key issue delaying an EPA order in November 2016 calling for a $613 million project to dredge, excavate and remove contaminated sediment from the river's bottom and shoreline.
The project would take 13 to 15 years in phases, including a two-year design period. According to the EPA, it would yield the removal of nearly 1.4 million tons of PCB material from the river, requiring nearly 100,000 truckloads to a designated dumping site.
The EPA estimated that the result would be an 89 percent reduction in PCBs flowing over Woods Pond in Lenox and an 80 to 99 percent reduction in the concentrations of PCBs in the river's fish.
The agency's plan calls for shipping the PCB material to a federally licensed out-of-state facility, as required by a Massachusetts environmental regulations.
But GE seeks to save an estimated $250 million by burying the contaminants locally, potentially in a landfill at Lane Construction Co. in Lee, just south of Woods Pond in Lenox.
The pond, along with the river starting at Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield, would be deep-dredged to remove PCBs that migrated from the company's former electrical transformer plant. GE used the chemical agents from the 1930s until 1979, when the U.S. government banned their use.
"The EPA has suggested strongly to the five communities involved in this project that we enter into nonbinding mediation of the issues with General Electric," said Stephen Shatz, a Stockbridge Finance Committee member and former selectman. He's the town's designated representative to the Rest of River Municipal Committee.
Addressing the Stockbridge Select Board last week, Shatz emphasized the key sticking point between GE and the EPA — "the siting of a landfill for the excavated and de-watered PCB sediment."
"As you can imagine, General Electric does not wish to move the sediments to a site out-of-state and dispose of them there," Shatz said.
The company has designated several potential dumping sites. In addition to the Lane facility, locations off Forest Street in Lee and near Rising Pond in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington have been considered.
But the company is reported to have an option on the Lane Construction facility, within a stone's throw of the river a few hundred feet south of the Woods Pond dam.
"It's a major, significant issue, particularly for Lee and Lenox, because the site essentially borders both towns," Shatz said. "That will be the subject of the mediation, with [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt presumably looking over our shoulders."
Reply on hold
In January, the Environmental Appeals Board asked the EPA's Boston office for more information on local vs. out-of-state disposal. The response from Boston is now on hold pending the outcome of the attempted mediation.
Shatz told selectmen the $250 million cost of shipping the PCB contaminants out of the state "explains why GE is interested in mediation. It's very expensive to truck the sediments to a facility in New York state."
After Shatz asked the Stockbridge Select Board for authority on behalf of the town to enter into the mediation discussions, the members approved the motion, 3-0.
"It's just an agreement to enter into the mediation itself," Shatz told the selectmen. "If and when there is a result, it will be brought back to you, obviously, for approval."
The five towns are represented by attorney Matthew Pawa, an environmental specialist in Boston who has been counsel for the Rest of River panel for several years. Stockbridge has set aside funds for the effort, so no additional town appropriation is needed.
The other towns taking part in the Rest of River Municipal Committee have also voted to authorize their representatives to take part in the mediation discussions.
Lenox and Great Barrington did so last week. Lee and Sheffield had approved the effort previously. Unlike Stockbridge, those four towns held their discussions in private executive sessions.
Bickerman, the mediator, had dropped a previous effort in 2015 and 2016 to help settle the EPA-GE dispute, But as The Eagle reported last week, he has returned to the Berkshires on their dime for one more effort to work out a solution and avoid a court struggle that would delay any cleanup for several years.
EPA spokesman Jim Murphy told The Eagle that "if there's daylight and he's making progress, we'll encourage him to keep going."
For its part, GE stated through a Boston spokesman that the company will participate with the hope of finding "a common sense solution" and avoid "protracted litigation."
After meetings with Bickerman, leaders of three environmental groups intent on avoiding a local dump site for PCB waste have expressed skepticism over the chances of successful mediation.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.