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Lee officials wonder if there's another way to clean up PCBs in the Housatonic River


Staff members from Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office met again with town officials at Memorial Hall in Lee. Officials expressed further concerns with the plan to store PCB contaminated soil near Woods Pond.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the Berkshire Environmental Action Team is not a party to the lawsuit challenging the GE work permit issued by the EPA for the PCB cleanup. 

LEE — Town Administrator Chris Brittain challenged both the method and the decision to store PCB-contaminated soil in a town with the lowest income of the five towns involved in the cleanup of the Housatonic River.

In meeting with two staff members from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s New England team, Brittain and Select Board member Gordon Bailey questioned whether the plan to store low-level PCB contaminated soil in a storage facility in Lee reflected environmental justice.

“To me it is more of a case of social injustice,” said Gordon Bailey, town selectman.

According to Brittain, the town also has a more diverse population than most of the towns.

“We have concerns that environmental justice was not considered when GE and the EPA devised the plan,” Brittain said following the private meeting.

He said town officials are also seeking to get the EPA to seriously consider purging the pollutants from the riverbed without shipping or storing contaminated materials.

“We’ve been approached by a couple of businesses that say they can remove the PCBs right in the river,” Brittain said. “So we think it would be appropriate for the EPA to seriously consider some of these alternative methods.”

Another concern is that during the process of transporting and storing two million cubic yards of contaminated soil, some of the contaminants could volitialize, or become airborne, and carried to the town reservoir about a mile away. The EPA calls it fugitive dust.

Bailey noted that the town’s reservoir has been tested for PCBs and it came out clear, so now they’ll be able to tell if PCBs do wind up in the reservoir via fugitive dust.

“There has also been a lack of thorough documentation,” Bailey said, “to the point where it feels like the EPA is making this up as they go along.”

Brittain said other concerns include long-term maintenance and monitoring of the landfill for contaminants.

“We wonder whether 100 years form now, when we’re all gone, if the [landfill] starts leaking, will anybody be there to know?” Brittain said.

Bailey said he was appreciative for Warren’s attention to the matter, and that her staff members seemed concerned by some of their input.

“It seemed like they needed to get some more information from the EPA to find out where this thing is going,” Bailey said. “They seemed appreciative of our frustration due to a lack of detail.”

The issue stems from GE dumping used PCBs into the Housatonic River and local landfills.

GE, as part of its partial settlement with Lee, will remove and ship out of Massachusetts 140,000 tons of PCB contaminated dry mud and move the remaining two million tons of contaminated mud with lower PCB concentrations to the Lee dump.

The EPA has estimated that process will take 13 years and will begin “upon a favorable resolution on the First Circuit Court of Appeals of a case filed in 2023 against EPA by Lee’s residents.”

In 2016, the EPA issued a Rest of River clean-up plan requiring GE to ship all PCB waste removed from the river out of state, a plan the Rest of River Committee supported.

But GE appealed the plan to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, which vacated the agreement.

After mediated negotiations between GE, the RoR Committee and several others, in January 2020, the RoR Committee approved the new agreement with GE, which called for GE to begin cleanup and ship the most highly contaminated waste material out of state, but allowing material with lower levels of PCBs to be disposed of in Berkshire County.

In January 2023, the RoR Committee, through legal counsel, filed a 50-page legal brief arguing in support of the EPA’s order, against the wishes of the Lee Select Board.

A federal court hearing in Boston is 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.

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 PCBs. For comparison, PCB levels below 50 ppm can legally be disposed of in a municipal solid waste landfill.

Brittain said the Warren staff members took notes on all their concerns, and will bring that to Warren, who would then decide how to respond.

EPA administrator says Lee PCB storage site will be safe for recreation once finished

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

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