oxbows

The oxbows along the Housatonic River in Lenox are part of a continuing debate about methods of cleanup because of PCB pollution. Despite any legal challenges, General Electric will continue prep work for a project expected to begin in 2023, at the earliest, and lasting roughly 13 years.

LENOX — It appears to be the final answer: The Environmental Protection Agency is going ahead with the Rest of River settlement requiring General Electric to clean up the Housatonic River from the toxic PCB pollution it deposited there over four decades ending in the late 1970s.

The EPA unveiled the plan last February, at an event in the Lenox railroad station. A hue and cry followed when some, probably many, Lee and Lenox Dale residents saw that the less-toxic sediment would be stored in the grandly titled Upland Disposal Facility, aka The Dump, as opponents called it.

Despite months of meetings and public comment, the final revised plan is basically the same as the cleanup permit released then. The Housatonic River Initiative, led by Tim Gray, plans an appeal to an EPA review board in Washington, D.C., with the help of attorneys working pro bono, seeking a better deal that takes more PCBs out of the river and ships all the toxins out of Massachusetts. The opposition is also fueled by a grassroots movement, Stop the Dump.

If the EPA appeals board denies the opponents’ challenge, the next step could be a federal court in Boston, Gray told The Eagle, which could delay the project further.

Despite any legal challenges, GE will continue prep work for a project expected to begin in 2023, at the earliest, and lasting roughly 13 years.

The EPA came up with its first official plan more than four years ago, but the final version “is protective of human health and the environment and will result in more contaminated sediment removed from the river and surrounding areas,” the agency stated. “The cleanup plan has specific provisions to expedite cleanup, significantly enhance the PCB removal in the cleanup and provide for safe, effective disposal of the excavated materials.”

The settlement was negotiated by the EPA, the state of Connecticut, the Rest of River Municipal Committee (representatives of Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Sheffield), the city of Pittsfield, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Berkshire Environmental Action Team, Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey Cook and GE. Notably, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection stood aside and did not publicly endorse the revised final permit.

GE is required to clean up contamination in river sediment, banks and flood plain soil that pose unacceptable risks to human health and to the environment, the EPA pointed out, at an estimated cost of $576 million.

The agreement, which requires GE to ship about 90 percent of the most toxic PCB soil and sediment to a licensed out-of-state facility, saves the company about $125 million of the previous projected cost, around $700 million.

Most of the sediment and flood plain cleanup is along 11 miles of the Housatonic from southeast Pittsfield through Lee and Lenox, and the work will be done in phases, each lasting several years, from north to south.

Opponents of the plan want alternative techniques and technologies to deal with the probable cancer-causing PCB chemicals. The EPA has committed to continue supporting research into those possibilities. But, after a brief final comment period, the cleanup permit takes effect on Feb. 3.

‘The sooner, the better’

It’s hard to avoid trepidation, especially for those living near the river and many of us who consider it a jewel of beauty and recreation. The disruption caused by the cleanup will be massive, which is why GE will pay Lee and Lenox $25 million each to help cope, while Pittsfield gets $8 million, and Stockbridge and Great Barrington get $1.5 million each.

At the annual Lenox Town Meeting on Sept, 26, Select Board member Edward Lane, a Lenox Dale resident, agreed that while “nobody is looking forward to a dump, the common goal we do have is, we want to have a clean river at some point; the sooner, the better.”

Lane, who lives 2,300 feet from the facility, emphasized that he believes in science, technology and engineering.

“This is going to be a ‘dump’ with very low-level toxins in it; it will be overbuilt, so, I feel perfectly safe living next to that,” he said. “I get it; nobody really wants this to happen, but it’s probably the best thing, overall, in the future.”

I also value the viewpoint of Patty Carlino, a 22-year veteran of the Lee Select Board and the town’s representative to the Rest of River Municipal Committee. She kept an open mind after first opposing the local “dump” site at the former Lane Construction quarry near the river, saying, “I’ll chain myself to the fence before the bulldozer comes in.”

But, after more than a year of closed-door mediation, she declared that “if I’m going to be forced to have a landfill in my town, I want it to be the safest and the nicest and the best it can be. And I think we’ve done that with the help of the EPA.”

Carlino described the Housatonic as a “hazardous waste site, and that wasn’t an option. And I applaud EPA because they’re not going to let it happen. I have children, I have grandchildren, I’ll have great-grandchildren at some point. I want to leave them with something I can feel comfortable with that is not going to impact their lives in a negative way.”

Likewise, former Lenox Select Board member Channing Gibson, who represented the town on the municipal committee, explained that “EPA gave us the opportunity to engage with Electric. This was a real opportunity for the towns. It was our first chance to have a seat at the table in a real way and hope that we could come out of this with improvements to what we were going to get.”

“EPA proposed a hybrid cleanup, getting the worst, most toxic materials out of state,” Gibson said. “EPA wanted an enhanced cleanup. And we began to see that GE was willing to negotiate on these things. We’re very pleased with the deal as it is; we feel human health is protected.”

According to Stephen Shatz, the Stockbridge representative on the committee, when mediation began, there was an all-or-nothing approach, “which meant you either won or lost. There was no real understanding of what mediation was about.”

But, a new team from the EPA and a management change at GE broke the ice, enabling a settlement to emerge, he said.

For Lee and Lenox, the settlement projects 50,000 truckloads of contaminants hauled away on town roads during the project, about half the number estimated in the original 2016 cleanup plan. In early February, the select boards of all five towns involved in the mediation unanimously voted to support the compromise settlement.

Opponents believe the agreement was hatched in secret to avoid public participation. But, mediation efforts must be confidential until concluded, according to legal requirements.

By all outward appearances, the Housatonic is pristine, attracting waterfowl and wildlife to its waters and shoreline. But, poison lurks below and along the riverbanks, and while no cleanup can be perfect, it can be good. The agreement, if it stands, is an investment for a river beloved by residents and visitors for its beauty. Someday, it may be swimmable and fishable. That’s the prize to keep our eyes on.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.