The five-town Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee voted 4-1 on Thursday to spend up to $15,000 for legal counsel to participate in oral arguments at the June 6 federal court hearing in Boston on the EPA-GE PCB cleanup work permit.
The committee had been ordered by the state Attorney General’s Office to take a new vote within 14 days of the AG’s Open Meeting Law violation ruling issued May 19. Lee resident Joshua Bloom had filed the complaint. He contended that the posting of a March 27 agenda item on the funding vote taken that day was too vague.
The five-town group is an intervenor at the U.S. First District Court of Appeals to support the GE work permit issued by the EPA to remove likely cancer-causing PCBs from the Housatonic from southeast Pittsfield downstream to Sheffield.
The Housatonic River Initiative based in Lee and the Housatonic Environmental Action League in Cornwall Bridge, Conn., filed an appeal with the court seeking to overturn the work permit.
Committee member Channing Gibson of Lenox explained his vote in support for funding the committee’s participation in the court hearing.
“The [Lenox Select Board] believes that delaying the cleanup and thereby allowing the Housatonic River to remain an uncontrolled toxic waste dump for the unforeseen future would be detrimental to the town,” he told The Eagle after the meeting.
The flashpoint for many Lee residents and town officials is the creation of a landfill near Woods Pond to dispose of low-level PCB concentrations of sediment and soil to be removed from the river.
The Lee Select Board on Wednesday voted 2-0 to appoint Bloom as a nonvoting committee member. Bloom is teaming up with Lee Select Board Chairman Bob Jones to represent the town. Each of the towns on the committee, also including Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, can have a second, nonvoting member.
“Josh Bloom has really done his homework,” Jones told The Eagle after the meeting. “I will have the vote, but I will be conferring closely with Josh because of his expertise regarding this proposed dump and the Rest of River agreement. The town is delighted to have him on board.”
Bloom also has filed multiple complaints over the lack of public comment on the agenda during several recent meetings of the committee. According to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which runs the sessions, public comments were on the agenda for 24 meetings from September 2020 through March 2023. Four meetings since September 2020 did not list public comments, but three were purely administrative.
Before the Thursday vote to fund legal representation at the federal court hearing, Jones pointed out that the town of Lee is seeking mediation “to resolve whether we should be filing an intervenor brief at all. We fully believe the Rest of River Committee should stay out of the court case. This is between HRI, EPA and GE and let the chips fall where they may.”
Jones asserted that the committee “was supposed to be five towns working together to help each other make the best of a really bad situation.” But his motion to delay a vote on the funding issue pending mediation failed due to lack of a second.
Committee member Rene Wood of Sheffield pointed out that the attorney general’s “perfectly correct finding that the committee violated the posting requirements” now requires an immediate new vote by the committee. That vote to fund legal representation at the court hearing was then approved 4-1, with Jones dissenting.
The committee also voted 4-1, with Lenox representative Channing Gibson opposed, in favor of Jones’s motion to allow public comment at Thursday’s meeting.
Lee resident Anne Langlais offered thanks “for finally allowing public comments, months and months we’ve been waiting to have a voice at your meetings.”
She blasted the committee for its “decision to go to court against the town of Lee and interject yourself into a court case that is ongoing. It is baffling to me that you want to be represented going down in history of going against your neighbors.”
She also decried the rejection by leaders of the four towns of an invitation from the Lee Select Board for a joint meeting. “Just to have that discussion would be a very large showing that you actually do care about your neighbors,” Langlais said.
Another Lee resident, Janice Braim, accused the Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield representatives of lacking empathy. “If this dump was in your backyard, it would be a different story,” she said. “If it was in your backyard, I’d be fighting for you. So, start sticking up for us and being good neighbors.”
Addressing Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission who chairs the Rest of River Committee meetings, Bloom demanded “greater transparency and public engagement,” and that he “stop trying to hide information fr
om the public and stop trying to limit public participation.”