They sat on hold, 72 of them, waiting by their computers for their big public hearing moment on Adobe Connect. Another 117 people called and left voicemails. Hundreds sent emails, letters and even faxes — 428 in all.
Comments poured in last summer after the Environmental Protection Agency released the latest version of its approach to removing toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Housatonic River, the one devised in closed-door negotiations with the General Electric Co. and other parties.
EPA officials listened, without comment, to scorching criticism of the agency’s plan to allow GE to bury sediment containing lower levels of the PCBs in Lee. Critics at three public hearing sessions assailed local PCB burial. The agency was mum until late this month, when it dropped a 140-page document with point-by-point responses to comments.
Most of the hearing comments zeroed in on the safety of the landfill, appeals to find and use innovative technologies to break down PCBs, concerns about property values and harm to tourism and questions about whether GE would do the work.
What follows are 13 of the EPA’s responses involving its long-awaited Rest of River cleanup, released along with its revised final cleanup plan. The Housatonic River Initiative has already said it intends to challenge the current plan in court.
COMMENTS: The EPA’s recap starts with bold understatement: “Several commenters expressed strong opposition to the proposed [Upland Disposal Facility] location.” That opposition was indeed “vehement,” as the agency then acknowledges, with one member of the public, Deborah Kelly, of 74 West St. in Lenox, saying in late August, “I feel that toxic is toxic. I don’t know how you want to spin it.” People also flagged concerns about hazardous emissions, earthquake risks, groundwater contamination and even the possibility that a failed dump site could again contaminate the river.
RESPONSE NO. 1: First, the EPA pointed out that doing nothing leaves toxins in the environment within the river’s floodplain — a view stressed by Dennis Deziel, the EPA’s regional administrator, in an interview with The Eagle.
In its written response, the agenda says: “Unless addressed, the contamination poses a current and future threat to humans through direct contact and fish consumption and a current and future threat to ecological receptors.”
“In essence, the sediments are being removed from an area where they are currently causing unacceptable risks to humans and the environment, to an area that is designed to prevent environmental and human health impacts,” the EPA said.
The agency asserts that, all things considered, it believes the landfill to be most protective to human health, with the highest concentrations of PCB-laden soils going to a facility outside of the state. Deziel says the agency insisted on that.
Over 10 pages, the EPA explained why it set aside arguments opposing the planned landfill. (For detailed answers, on this and other topics, see the agency’s full response to comments.) A brief sampling: The site is not too close to the river. The EPA knows how to supervise capped landfills. The planned landfill will be overbuilt for the sediments it will contain. There are already two landfills in the quarry. Steps will test for and guard against air contamination. The cap materials can withstand New England winters and “seismic activities.”
“EPA has been presented with no quantitative evidence or scientific studies indicating that the [landfill] will not be protective of human health or the environment,” EPA said.
COMMENT: What if the landfill liner leaks?
RESPONSE NO. 2: The EPA views a leak as unlikely. But if groundwater monitoring detects a leak, GE will be ordered to fix the landfill system and protect human health and the environment.
COMMENT: People at the public hearings expressed fears that a landfill leak could contaminate local water supplies in Lee. Several people asked how the EPA could have confidence in the landfill’s safety if it is requiring GE to provide connections to public water supplies for those using drinking water wells within 500 feet of the landfill.
RESPONSE NO. 3: The EPA says the use of public water supplies stems from a provision in state regulations that apply to water near solid waste landfills, and not to the EPA having decided the planned landfill poses a threat. “In fact, the Permit leaves the property owner the option to connect to town water, at GE’s cost, or to continue using a private well,” the EPA said.
And the agency says the landfill will be over a mile from the town’s public water supplies, which lie 150 higher in elevation than the landfill. “It is not possible for potentially contaminated groundwater or stormwater surface runoff to migrate from the UDF and contaminate the upgradient drinking water supplies,” the agency said.
COMMENT: Won’t airborne PCBs drift from the landfill towards residential areas two-thirds of the year?
RESPONSE NO. 4: Citing meteorological data from the Pittsfield Municipal Airport, winds in the Lee and Lenoxdale neighborhood close to Woods Pond in the river are mostly likely to go from west to east, taking any possible airborne toxins towards woods rather than residences, the agency said. “However, the engineering controls, monitoring, and maintenance of the UDF will be designed and implemented to be protective of nearby neighborhoods regardless of wind direction,” it said.
COMMENT: Why this disposal site in Lee?
RESPONSE NO. 5: It is closest to where most dredged material will originate, the agency said. And the quarry that will be used, of the three disposal sites considered, is already “disturbed.” The area is also home, the EPA notes, to two other landfills (the Lee Sanitary Landfill and the Schweitzer-Mauduit paper company landfill). The location will also allow GE to use hydraulic pumping of sediment that will take vehicles off local roads.
COMMENT: Why can’t the EPA make use of treatments that might be able to render the PCBs harmless right where they lie in the floodplain?
RESPONSE NO. 6: In detailed replies, the EPA says that its decision in the 2016 permit not to require these approaches was upheld by the Environmental Appeals Board in 2018. “That EPA decision is thus not within the scope of the current public comment period, and EPA is not required to respond to the comments,” the agency said.
Nonetheless, it notes that alternative technologies have been studied, by GE and the EPA, and found to be impractical. It questions whether the processing systems needed to mount a large scale alternative to dredging would be any more palatable to local residents. “Numerous challenges remain regarding the use of innovative treatment technologies,” the response said. “At present there is no proven and viable in-situ method that would avoid excavation of soil and sediment on the scale of the Housatonic River cleanup and allow for suitable reuse of all the material.”
Meantime, the EPA is stepping up its call for research and innovation that might produce a technology able to break down PCBs that are eventually placed in the landfill, according to Bryan Olson, a key EPA official with a long history of working on the Housatonic pollution.
“To that end, EPA committed in the Settlement Agreement to facilitate opportunities for research and testing of innovative treatment and other technologies and approaches for reducing PCB toxicity and/or concentrations in excavated soil and/or sediment before, during, or after disposal in a landfill. EPA will begin discussions with stakeholders to design and issue a “Challenge” competition. (More information on that can be found online at www.challenge.gov.)
COMMENT: Could the contaminated soils be stored inside until new technologies could be found to render PCBs harmless?
RESPONSE NO. 7: Not practical, in the agency’s view. To store up to 1.3 million cubic yards of contaminated material would require clearing over 9 acres of land, the agency said, “and constructing a building approximately 630 feet wide by 630 feet long and 90 feet high.”
COMMENT: Won’t all the trucking of sediments harm the quality of life in the cleanup area for years and years?
RESPONSE NO. 8: Those details will be worked out in the months and years before construction work begins.
“The Permit has various requirements to address community impacts during remediation activities in submittals required under the Permit,” the EPA said, including local traffic volume and routes used. “GE is also required to establish and maintain a system to identify and address community complaints during construction activities.”
COMMENT: Many people expressed concern about how the cleanup will affect local property values. People questioned the impact of public fears about airborne contamination, increased truck traffic and other issues.
RESPONSE NO. 9: The agency says such comments were “beyond the scope” of the public comment process. What’s more, the agency is not required, it said, to evaluate effects on property values or tourism. For that reason, it did not study those possible impacts. “Even if the impact on property values were a consideration in EPA’s remedy selection process, it would not change the Region’s analysis of the best suited alternative,” the report said.
Still, the EPA’s response goes to lengths to demonstrate that work in Pittsfield did not result in property values falling there, when earlier cleanup work led to creation of two landfills in the city.
“The commenters’ claims regarding property values and a drop in tourism are speculative, and the commenters did not provide any data in support of their arguments,” the EPA said. Also, it notes that the Lee landfill is planned for an industrial site that already contains “an asphalt plant, a sand and gravel pit, an electrical substation, and several commercial/industrial facilities and is near two closed landfills.”
COMMENT: Many people questioned the fairness of the closed-door mediation that led to the February 2020 settlement agreement. People noted that no town-wide votes were taken and that citizens were not asked for their views. The group Green Berkshires argued that the EPA should have laid out alternatives and allowed the people most affected to have a say.
RESPONSE NO. 10: As with the matter of tourism and property values, those issues did not require the EPA to respond, the agency said. “That being the case, these comments regarding the Settlement Agreement are beyond the scope of the public comment opportunity,” the EPA said.
COMMENT: The Housatonic Environmental Action League asked the EPA to reopen negotiations with GE and other parties that took part in what the league termed “a dubious settlement compromise as a result of a secretive and undemocratic mediation.”
RESPONSE NO. 11: The EPA says the comment, like others, was “beyond the scope.” It reasserts that the chosen cleanup is the best approach. “EPA thus declines the request to reopen negotiations on the Rest of River at this time.”
COMMENT: Some people said they think the final permit was being “rushed through.” Some argued that the rush was designed to lock in an approach ahead of the November presidential election.
RESPONSE NO. 12: “Beyond the scope.” But the comments drew this reply: “EPA disagrees with that characterization. EPA has been moving forward on ensuring a protective Rest of River cleanup for many years, and this year has not been any different.”
COMMENT: What if GE fails to carry through, financially, with the project?
RESPONSE NO. 13: “Beyond the scope.” But as with other comments, the EPA still had something to say. The agency notes that the 2000 Consent Decree requires GE to make financial guarantees. And it points out that in January 2019, GE executed a performance bond for $150 million.