PCB dump among key issues in Lee Select Board race (copy)

On Thursday, the country's top environmental court will hear an appeal that seeks to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from allowing the General Electric Co. to bury sediments containing lower levels of toxic PCBs in a former Lee quarry site visible in the upper left portion of this photo.

PITTSFIELD — For more than an hour early Thursday afternoon, the country’s top environmental court will hear why the latest plan to pull toxins from the Housatonic River should be scuttled.

And why it should go ahead.

Lawyers for environmental groups will face off against lawyers with the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Electric Co. in a videoconference proceeding that the public can observe.

The Environmental Appeals Board will stream the proceedings on a Zoom platform. The hearing begins at 1:30 p.m. The Zoom webinar ID number is 160 076 0195.

Two groups are appealing the Rest of River permit awarded to the EPA in December. That permit allows sediments pulled from the river tainted with lower levels of PCBs to be stowed in an engineered landfill in Lee.

Here is a timeline of the process leading to the Housatonic Rest of River cleanup settlement agreement.2000: The U.S. District Court in Springfield issues a decree requiring specific actions for 25 …

The Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League appealed the permit — and urged the District of Columbia court to allow the proceeding to take place by videoconference, in part to ensure public access.

“Holding the hearing virtually is ... expected to reduce the financial and logistical burdens for the members of the HRI and HEAL, for other interested stakeholders … located in communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” the groups said in a motion to the court.

The court granted that request. Thursday’s hearing will allow 40 minutes of arguments from those appealing the permit, and the same amount of time for the EPA and GE to address justices handling the case — and to respond to their questions.

One Berkshire attorney, Judith Knight, will be given up to five minutes to speak in a friend-of-court appearance. Knight represents Citizens Against the PCB Dump, the Berkshire-Litchfield Environmental Council and the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe of Kent, Conn.

Matthew F. Pawa, representing the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, also has filed an appearance to be heard on the case.

The environmental groups HRI and HEAL petitioned the court in January to review the case, after the EPA changed its stance to allow disposal of sediments containing PCBs in a former Lee quarry.

The case is the latest twist in efforts that began in the previous century to address GE’s legacy of pollution in the Housatonic, the region’s premier watershed.

Until polychlorinated biphenyls were banned in 1979, GE used them to make transformers in Pittsfield. Over decades, massive amounts of the toxin, a probable carcinogen, were released into the environment.

Previous oral arguments before the court were held in June 2017, when GE opposed an order calling for all PCBs dredged from the river to be shipped out of state. The next January, the court asked the EPA to study that question anew, kicking off a period of renegotiation that included secret mediation.

In February 2020, those talks produced an agreement allowing local burial of sediments with lower levels of contamination, with higher levels sent out of state.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.