Frustration churns during Housatonic River Initiative meeting about planned PCB dump

The 20-acre proposed landfill site for PCBs, center foreground, is on 75 acres off Woodland and Willow Hill roads in northwest Lee, at a quarry formerly owned by Lane Construction Co.

“We don’t have to like it, but we have to deal with it.”

That’s what Lee Select Board Chairman David Consolati said to a citizens group that demanded the town’s top board reverse its approval of the federally mandated remediation plan for the Housatonic River. The citizens group’s complaints stemmed from the cleanup plan’s proposed landfill site in Lee where low-level PCB-contaminated soil would be stored.

Those so vociferously opposed to the Lee dump site that they would further delay the Housatonic’s best chance for cleanup cite multiple points of contention with the grand bargain struck last year. They say the fact that the secret nature of the cleanup deal’s negotiations was anti-democratic and undermined its legitimacy. They also find cruel irony in the fact that the siting of a landfill for toxic materials in the Berkshires was a budgetary victory for the very entity that polluted the river in the first place, General Electric Co., as the long-distance transportation of toxic materials is indeed the most expensive part of the GE-funded cleanup plan.

Nevertheless, the Housatonic River’s protracted polluted state demands action. This was true for the decades after GE ceased dumping PCBs into the river, and it’s still true now more than 20 years after the consent decree ordering GE to clean up its mess. The negotiations between the Environmental Protection Agency, GE and representatives from the impacted local governments sought to move the ball forward on this long-overdue remediation, and they did just that, as the agreement announced last February finally signaled a path forward for the cleanup after years of inaction.

Nobody wants a dump in their backyard, but the EPA has demonstrated that containment plans for the PCB landfill in Lee will exceed the required standards for such a facility. It will be “overbuilt” to handle PCB concentrations up to the 50-parts-per-million limit regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act, while only having an overall concentration level around 25 ppm. GE will pick up the tab for monitoring and upkeep of the landfill. And the landfill will not be desecrating an otherwise pristine site, as the quarry where it’s to be located is already home to other, albeit nontoxic, dump sites. PCB containment sites in Pittsfield, also ex-GE sites monitored by the EPA, have not had the calamitous aftereffects predicted by opponents of the Lee dump.

Given GE’s responsibility for the current state of the river, the reflexive instinct to put the screws to them as much as possible is felt by some as a compelling one. Yet it is a disservice to the Housatonic River and its watershed area to prioritize that sentiment over getting to the actual remediation process. The river needs to be cleaned up, and it can’t stand to wait through more years of inaction and bureaucratic legal wrangling, which is assured if the cleanup plan’s opponents see the cleanup plan overturned.

Those looking to hamstring the cleanup plan even as it’s about to get off the ground, however well-intentioned, appear to have lost sight of that. For example, the citizens group’s attorney, Judith Knight, appeared to make a case not just against the dump site but the cleanup in general, arguing to the Lee Select Board that dredging the river will “stir things up” and worsen the river’s condition. This is a complete contradiction of the EPA’s own ruling that the cleanup plan not only is safe with regard to the river and the dump site but is an absolutely necessary solution to a toxic stain on the region’s health and environmental landscape.

Hard feelings over the dump are understandable, especially for those in Lee and Lenox Dale who live close to the proposed dump site. Those near enough to the proposed dump site that their property values might be affected but who had no say in the matter should be compensated. The $25 million apiece earmarked for Lee and Lenox as part of the deal should help that.

At this juncture, however, the hard feelings cannot be allowed to torpedo the entire river cleanup — a process slated to take more than a decade with prep work set to begin next year — by dragging the plan back to the drawing board for years. As such, the Lee Select Board’s refusal to waver in its approval of the grand bargain cleanup deal should be a signal to those trying to make the perfect the enemy of the good: There can be no more wavering if the goal is to restore a vital Berkshires waterway long mired in carcinogenic pollution.