LEE — Hopes of flipping the town into the opposition column regarding a proposed toxic waste landfill are now hanging on Thursday’s annual town meeting.
The Lee Select Board has rejected a request by its newest member calling for the town to join citizen opposition to the landfill plan — a move that was endorsed during last year’s annual town meeting.
Selectman Robert Jones proposed that the board authorize spending $50,000 to challenge the Rest of River agreement, which Lee and four other towns signed in early 2020. But Selectman Sean Regnier and board Chair Patricia Carlino, while not necessarily thrilled with the agreement, declined to reverse course.
Now opponents hope annual town meeting voters on Thursday will support a call to hold a townwide election no later than May 2022 on whether to require the board to rescind the agreement. The town is set to receive $25 million as part of the agreement.
In February 2020, the town — and four other river communities — approved a river cleanup deal with the Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric Co. that includes the installation of a lined, in-ground waste facility to accept some of the PCB-tainted sediment dredged from the Housatonic River. GE’s Pittsfield plant pumped PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls, into the river for decades.
Jones told his colleagues at the June 15 meeting they have a mandate from the town to rescind the agreement.
“We are the pilots; our constituents the navigators,” he said. “They’ve set the course for us; we know where we should be going.”
Jones noted that since his overwhelming election victory earlier in the spring, he has removed himself from court documents as one of the four Lee residents who filed suit in March in Berkshire Superior Court challenging the validity of the right for Lee officials to approve the deal without town voter input.
Regnier and Carlino said they couldn’t seek to rescind the board’s decision without first finding out the ramifications of backing out of the agreement. Regnier felt the town could face a long, costly legal battle challenging the agreement. Carlino noted she had long been against a landfill, but the alternatives, one of which called for three separate dumps in Berkshire County, would have been worse.
Regnier questioned the cleanup plan’s potential effectiveness.
“Is this really going to clean up the river in its entirety? I suspect no,” he said. “It’s not going to be a full cleanup of the river to make it an absolute swimmable and fishable river.”
Regnier and Jones joined the board after the PCB deal was reached. Regnier and Jones defeated incumbents Thomas Wickham and David Consolati in successive annual town elections after February 2020. That left Carlino the only remaining board member that signed the pact.
Meanwhile, the citizens group appealing the agreement in court, led by the Housatonic River Initiative, continues to hammer away at why the landfill is bad for the town.
Opponents of what is known as the Upland Disposal Facility believe that the agreement was reached, after secret mediation, without public input. The board claims that it followed state law and had the right to sign the deal without a town meeting or referendum vote.
HRI Executive Director Tim Gray said the landfill, located not far from the October Mountain State Forest campground, is simply not good for the town and its visitors.
“[In addition], all lands around it are an area of environmental concern. It was designated that [by the state] because they’re special,” he said. “Some of the lands are right at the bottom where they want to build the dump.”
Under the agreement, the EPA 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 calls for the highest concentrations of PCBs to be sent to an official disposal site outside Massachusetts.