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Sen Elizabeth Warren pledges to 'prioritize' the health of Lee residents in the PCB landfill struggle

Congress Banking Crisis

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has pledged to work with the EPA and GE to keep Lee residents safe from exposure to PCBs during the clean up of the Housatonic River.

LEE — Set to meet with town officials on Monday, U.S. Sen Elizabeth Warren’s staff said she is committed to working with the town to find the best way to clean up soil contaminated with PCBs along the Housatonic River, and to address community concerns.

The meeting on Monday will be ahead of a federal court hearing in Boston set for June 6 to hear challenges from the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League to the GE work permit issued by the EPA for the PCB cleanup, including the planned landfill in Lee for low-level PCB material.

The landfill will be directly across a small road from Woods Pond, where 285,000 cubic yards of sediment is designated for removal. Overall, about 2 million cubic yards of materials may be stored there.

The EPA responded to an April 19 letter from Warren, which was sent after a meeting between the senator’s staff and Lee town officials, who oppose siting the landfill in Lee. In it, Warren posed a series of questions about a settlement GE and EPA came to in 2020 following dumping of PCBs in the Housatonic River.

David W. Cash, the Region 1 administrator for EPA in New England, responded with his own letter. Following up, Warren’s office set up the upcoming meeting with town staff.

Warren’s letter to the EPA related a number of questions and concerns raised by town officials.

According to Cash’s letter, the decision to place the landfill in Lee was based on several factors, including “proximity to a large percentage of the material to be excavated/dredged as part of the remedy, the size of the area, and the area’s past disturbance and industrial use.”

When asked for a reaction from Warren on Cash’s letter, her staff sent a statement.

“The EPA committed in writing to work closely with the Town of Lee and stakeholders in implementing the cleanup and implement safeguards to help address the community’s concerns, including a Challenge Competition to develop innovative solutions that could be incorporated into the plan,” the statement says. “Senator Warren’s office will continue working with local, state and federal officials to prioritize residents’ health and ensure the EPA upholds its commitment.”

In a document provided by the New England Region of the EPA to the Lee Board of Health, the EPA maintained that it is “extremely unlikely that PCBs will leach out of the contaminated material in the [landfill] into the groundwater beneath.”

According to the statement, the material to be disposed of in the landfill is estimated to have an average concentration of about 20 to 25 parts per million of PCBs. For comparison, PCB levels below 50 ppm can be disposed of in a municipal solid waste landfill.

Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, said Cash’s letter left him with questions.

He pointed out that the liners to be used to prevent leaks underneath the landfill are to provide “low-permeability” to the dump.

“Low-permeability means they still leak to some degree,” he said. “So how much over time?”

He added that the idea of the landfill serving as a recreational area once it is complete and covered with grass is “a little absurd. Who wants a recreational area on top of a big, toxic dump?”

Gray noted that the town water supply is indeed uphill from the location for the proposed dump and that water doesn’t run uphill, but through volatilization, PCBs can become airborne and wind up in the town water supply that way.

He also said putting the dump “right next” to the entrance to one of the state’s biggest parks, October Mountain Forest, is just a bad idea. Much of that area, Gray said, is listed as an “area of critical environmental concern” by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-4622.

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