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Rest of river cleanup

As court date nears, Lee PCB ‘dump’ opponents turn up the heat

A lawn sign opposing a PCB dump site (copy)

The five-town Rest of River Committee voted 4-1, with Lee Selectman Bob Jones opposed, to spend up to $15,000 from its legal funds to take part in the upcoming oral arguments at the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals to support a cleanup agreement between General Electric and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would place PCBs in a Lee landfill.

LEE — The epic legal struggle over a planned General Electric-Environmental Protection Agency cleanup of toxic PCB chemicals from the Housatonic River from southeast Pittsfield to Sheffield is nearing a climax.

Opponents in Lee are doubling down against a disposal site for up to 1 million yards of low-level PCB-contaminated sediment dredged from the river. The destination: What EPA describes as a state-of-the-art landfill in the northwest section of the town near the Lenox border.

Attorneys for GE and the EPA, and their opponents from the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League, will begin making their cases at U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston this spring. Oral arguments are currently set to begin May 4.

Tim Gray speaks in an auditorium

Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, speaks during a forum.

Design and engineering work for the dredging and disposal project has been underway for more than a year.

If the $576 million, 10-year cleanup clears court scrutiny, work would begin to start extracting up to 1 million cubic yards of low-level PCB-contaminated sediment from the river into the double-lined disposal facility in Lee near Woods Pond in Lenox and across from Lenox Dale.

The most toxic material would be shipped out of state, potentially to a U.S.-licensed disposal site in Belleville, Mich.

But the Lee Select Board and the town’s Board of Health remain dead-set against any PCB disposal into a “dump” in their town.

The meeting of the five-town Rest of River Municipal Committee — attended by representatives from Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield — was run by Tom Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Lee Selectman Bob Jones, a fierce critic, noted that the intermunicipal agreement setting up the Rest of River Committee and payments from GE to the five towns was signed by three now-former Select Board members in 2019 “without the acquiescence, permission or support from the citizens of the town. The voters didn’t have a say. The meetings were held in secret.”

The five-town committee voted 4-1, with Jones opposed, to spend up to $15,000 from its legal funds to take part in the upcoming oral arguments at the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals to support the cleanup agreement.

Describing a “backlash” from town voters, Jones said 77 percent of elected town representatives supported overturning the intermunicipal agreement in 2020, and 74 percent voted to rescind it in 2021.

In 2022, a non-binding ballot question in Lee yielded a 655 to 390 result to back out of the intermunicipal agreement. “When we say we’re representing all the people of South Berkshire, that’s not quite accurate,” Jones told the committee members.

Jones also asserted that he and his two Select Board colleagues, all elected from 2020 to 2022, are “absolutely opposed” to the agreement.

Although there’s no discussion by the Lee Select Board of voting to rescind the intermunicipal agreement, other legal options are under review, said Jones. He added that the town’s Board of Health is examining the disposal site to see if it’s appropriate.

“Virtually everybody in Lee knows about this toxic waste dump because it’s right above our aquifer,” Jones declared. “It ended up in Lee because of three people, not because of the acquiescence of 5,500. So we’re really in tough shape, playing by the rules for three years now. We’re making progress, but this thing isn’t over yet, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Housatonic River Initiative founder Tim Gray was equally outspoken, pushing his group’s drive for what he called “better alternative technology.” He claimed that the dredging plan would remove only 30 percent to 40 percent of PCBs from the river.

“The settlement will leave the river contaminated,” Gray argued. “Let’s do it right instead of stupid.”

The GE-EPA agreement calls for more than half of PCB-tainted sediment by weight to be removed, but exact estimates have not been released. A message to the EPA on Tuesday was not immediately returned.

“It’s time to re-examine the political nature of the decision to put a toxic dump in a residential community,” said Lee resident Josh Bloom, pointing out that the EPA decisions on the river cleanup were made during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“Picking the PCBs up out of the river and putting them on the riverbank is not a solution,” said Gail Ceresia, a resident of Lee. “This whole plan is just going to create havoc in our communities, and the PCBs are going to be spread widely across the terrain. We really need to be looking at patents for new technology. We really need to solve the problem, not just move it around. There’s no big hurry. GE just wants to close the project out.”

A woman speaks

Anne Langlais speaks during a public forum on the proposed PCB landfill in Lee. 

Anne Langlais of Lee, calling for “environmentally friendly bio-remediation,” depicted the disposal site as a “great health risk” to nearby schools and the residential area since the disposal site is located 1,000 feet from the river and “close to the base of our town’s water reservoir.” She accused the EPA of placing GE’s best monetary interests “over the health risks to our citizens.”

Jones called the revised 2020 settlement agreement flawed because “the public was not part of the conversation, and that ultimately there would be a dump in Berkshire County, and that the cleanup itself would be inadequate.” The original agreement in 2017 required out-of-county shipment of all PCB-tainted sediment dredged from the river.

In filings with the U.S. Court of Appeals, lawyers for GE and the five Berkshire County towns call on the court to reject claims the EPA erred in revising its cleanup plan to allow local disposal of the PCBs.

If GE and EPA are successful, the planned Upland Disposal Facility will be closer to being built.

Lee PCB dump hearing

Gail Ceresia shows the Lee Board of Health the proposed dump's location as it relates to the aquifer and water runoff from October Mountain.

The Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League first challenged the EPA’s cleanup agreement before the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C., the nation’s highest environmental court. After losing there last year, attorneys for those two environmental organizations, working for free, moved to the appeals court in Boston, where they submitted responses to the latest filings from GE and the five Berkshires towns.

The settlement unveiled in February 2020 was negotiated during 18 months of mediated closed-door sessions by the municipal committee, joined by the EPA, the General Electric Co., Mass Audubon and the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT).

The agreement calls for GE, the polluter, to pay $25 million each to Lee and Lenox, where about 50,000 truckloads of contaminated material would traverse roads in those towns.

It also reserves $1.5 million apiece for Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield. Pittsfield, where Mayor Linda Tyer negotiated a separate settlement agreement, would get about $8 million.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, are probable cancer-causing chemical compounds. They were leaked from GE’s transformer plant in Pittsfield from the 1930s until 1979, when they were banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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