Frustration churns during Housatonic River Initiative meeting about planned PCB dump

The 20-acre proposed landfill site, center foreground, is on 75 acres of land that had been optioned by the General Electric Co., and is located off Woodland and Willow Hill roads in northwest Lee at a quarry formerly owned by Lane Construction Co.

Lee — The Select Board will reveal soon whether it will join a citizens group’s fight against a PCB dump in town near the Housatonic River — a crucial part for the Rest of River cleanup that the board itself backed.

Such a turnabout is seen as unlikely, one veteran of the fight says.

After what became a shouting match Tuesday night in a meeting with dump opponents, Chairman David Consolati said he and members Patricia Carlino and Sean Regnier would issue a decision at the panel’s Jan. 19 bimonthly session.

The residents, many of whom live within miles of the proposed disposal area in a quarry in the north end of town, were impatient that the board had not replied to their request from two months ago, when they urged the Select Board to back out of the deal announced in February with the General Electric Co., the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Lee and other Berkshire municipalities along the Housatonic.

The group also wants the board to use $50,000 that the annual town meeting in 2020 redirected from Lee’s portion of Rest of the River legal fund to fight the EPA’s plan to allow polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen, to be buried in an engineered landfill.

“Over my dead body this [dump] is going to happen,” resident Janice Castegnaro-Braim yelled from the audience. Later, in a softer voice, she said, “We would like you to work with us. We want to work together.”

Opponents say the Lee Select Board embraced the settlement without townwide consent and, according to their lawyer, without the necessary town meeting approval.

A leading anti-dump advocate, Housatonic River Initiative Executive Director Tim Gray, said he doubted that the board will do a 180-degree turn and oppose the PCB soil and sediment disposal site.

“There seems to be no way to work with you folks,” Gray said. “We come to these meetings and we get treated like low-class people. You can join us in the appeal, instead of ignoring us.”

WOODSPONDPCB2020-3.jpg

This aerial view of Woods Pond shows the Housatonic River entering the pond at the north end. The planned Upland Disposal Facility is located near the south end of the pond.

Gray was referring to the initiative’s plan to appeal the EPA’s decision in December, in a revised final permit, to keep the low-level PCB dump as part of the settlement.

In February, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Sheffield and Pittsfield accepted a plan to remove PCBs from sections of the river. The toxins were released into the river for decades by GE when the substance, now banned, was used to manufacture transformers.

Until joining in the settlement, the EPA had been against burying PCBs in Berkshire County as part of the long-planned Rest of River cleanup.

Under the agreement unveiled in February, the agency would order a cleanup that allows GE to bury about 1 million cubic yards of sediment containing lower levels of PCBs in the newly created Lee landfill.

The deal reached in February calls for the highest concentrations of PCBs to be sent to an official disposal site outside Massachusetts.

Opponents of what’s known as the Upland Disposal Facility believe that the agreement was reached without public input and shrouded in secrecy. The board claims that it followed state law and had the right to sign the deal without a town meeting or referendum vote.

“This is a massive claim and massive change ... you made behind closed doors,” said Judith Knight, the opposition group’s attorney.

She asserted that the board acted with “gross negligence” and “blatant abuse of discretion” in accepting the negotiated deal without townspeople’s input and approval.

The board has maintained that the deal is the best option for the town, saying GE likely would win any court case the town brings against the agreement.

Opponents say they believe that burying PCBs on a former quarry site in Lee, as is planned, will harm the town and environment.

Regnier, who wasn’t on the board last February, tried to calm the more vocal opponents at this week’s session, saying he is trying to form a committee to oversee the settlement, but only one person has shown interest.

He said the board had a lot to “review and digest” from Knight’s four-page response — received late Tuesday afternoon. Regnier was interrupted several times by shouts from the audience, prompting the usually reserved official to say, “If you’re going to keep interrupting me, I’ll stay silent.”

Consolati took exception to a comment from a new town resident, Bob Jones, who grew up in Great Barrington and last lived 18 years in Stockbridge.

Jones said he believes the board had no business making a decision so consequential on its own.

“This is not deciding what kind of doorknob that goes on the men’s room at Town Hall,” he said.

“I find that insulting,” Consolati replied.

Knight said she believes that the board didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. She said officials made a mistake and that by joining the opposition’s fight, they can correct that error.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com