Lee PCB site

Under terms of the revised Housatonic River cleanup agreement, the General Electric Co. will be permitted to dump more than 1 million cubic yards of contaminated material in a 20-acre landfill at this quarry in Lee. Woods Pond, just north of the site, is visible in the upper left portion of the photo.

For the second time in four years, justices with the country’s top environmental court will hear arguments for and against a plan to pull toxins from the Housatonic River.

It’s a different plan this time. And the debate might play out online, rather than in person.

Two groups are asking the Environmental Appeals Board to allow Sept. 2 oral arguments by videoconference, citing the coronavirus pandemic and an attorney’s late-stage pregnancy.

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 groups, the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League, claim an additional public benefit.

“Holding the hearing virtually is also 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,” according to a motion filed by the groups’ attorneys.

Their request has the support of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose latest Rest of River remedy would allow the General Electric Co. to bury up to 1 million cubic yards of sediments containing lower levels of PCBs in a Lee landfill.

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.

The previous oral arguments before the EAB were held in June 2017, when GE opposed an order calling for all PCBs to be shipped for disposal out of state. The following January, the court asked the EPA to study that question anew, kicking off a period of renegotiation that included a private mediation. In February 2020, those talks produced an agreement allowing local disposal of sediments with lower levels of contamination, with higher levels sent out of state.

The two environmental groups fought back. They petitioned the EAB in January to review the case, after the EPA officially changed its stance to allow disposal of sediments containing PCBs in a former Lee quarry area.

GE also has agreed to present its argument by videoconference, rather than at the court’s Washington, D.C., home base.

The Rest of River case will be heard by a panel of three justices. The court has not yet approved holding the Sept. 2 arguments by video but is expected to agree, since all parties agree and remote sessions by the court have been the norm over the past year.

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.