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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Sen. Warren's letter adds new page to Rest of River saga. It's reasonable to ask 'and then what?'

Lee town officials may have a new friend in their fight against a toxic landfill planned for the Woods Pond area. After staff members from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.,  met with town officials Wednesday afternoon, her office announced that she has sent a letter to the EPA seeking clarification on several matters regarding the GE-EPA plan to build a landfill to store PCB-contaminated soil in town.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s letter to the Environmental Protection Agency adds another page to the lengthy saga of the Housatonic River cleanup plan. As that saga winds on, some serious questions about where it’s going demand consideration — and answers.

Shortly after Wednesday afternoon’s meeting in Lee between local officials and the senator’s representatives, Sen. Warren’s office unveiled a letter sent to the EPA’s New England regional administrator. That letter is punctuated by 10 questions about the so-called Rest of River plan that the EPA permitted in February 2020 as part of a settlement agreement between the regulatory agency, General Electric and representatives from communities along the Housatonic. In addition to general procedural questions about the river cleanup and the EPA’s measures for monitoring GE’s compliance, the letter also asks for some details on the planned PCB disposal site in Lee. That latter point, of course, is the one upsetting many Lee leaders and residents.

Those in Lee vehemently opposed to the agreement because of the proposed PCB disposal site in town have been trying to get the senator’s ear for some time. It’s nice to see our senior senator reach out to Berkshire residents on a crucial regional matter. (We’d like to see it more on other issues, too.)

But what are the expected outcomes for Rest of River opponents’ seemingly endless search for footholds in the stance against this badly needed river remediation plan?

Neither the senator’s letter nor post-meeting comments from Lee officials and Sen. Warren’s office mention the ongoing case in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals brought by Rest of River opponents against the EPA for permitting the cleanup plan. While some dump opponents might characterize this case as assessing the merits of the cleanup plan, it is not. It is a much narrower question as to whether the Environmental Appeals Board acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner or violated the law when it upheld the permit the EPA granted for the Housatonic River cleanup plan. That appeal — essentially an appeal of an appeal since the permit was already upheld by the EAB — appears to be not only a longshot but a long way from being decided. Oral arguments are set to begin May 4, but a decision likely will come much later.

Sen. Warren’s letter inquires about the merits of the cleanup plan, but it doesn’t adopt detractors’ diametrically opposed tone. Whatever and whenever the EPA’s response, it’s unlikely that the senator’s inquiry will result in the regulatory agency substantively rehashing the 2020 agreement permit — especially the element that has attracted the most attention. Even Lee’s town administrator, among vocal dump opponents, admitted that in the wake of Wednesday’s meeting.

In this space, we’ve argued in favor of the EPA-approved 2020 agreement that would see GE clean up the carcinogenic mess it made of the Housatonic. Still, we understand why even an overbuilt, EPA-permitted storage facility meant to handle relatively low PCB-concentration sediment is an issue for Lee residents, especially those closest to the site. All things being equal, no one wants a disposal site in their backyard. Yet while the dump disproportionately affects Lee (and Lenox Dale), the fate of a comprehensive Housatonic cleanup plan matters to a much broader part of the Berkshire community. Whatever the intensity of the understandable hard feelings in Lee, it’s reasonable to ask what the procedural limits of reflexive opposition are here.

Some in Lee hope that Sen. Warren lending her voice to the issue will spur the EPA to discover, test and implement new remediation technologies that could allow for simply treating PCB-contaminated sediment instead of removing and storing it. But those technologies don’t currently exist. Hoping for them is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to rely on their hopeful development for a cleanup plan that needs to happen sooner than later.

Sen. Warren’s letter highlights the need to “ensure the community’s concerns are considered in this process.” We agree that concerns should be heard — and they have been. They were heard before the Environmental Appeals Board, which upheld the 2020 settlement permit, and they now are being heard, on a much narrower legal objection, in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals. That’s in addition to the fact that community concerns were incorporated into the settlement agreement that was unanimously approved by the representatives participating, including Lee’s.

It’s reasonable to ask what comes next if the EPA responds to Sen. Warren’s letter and when the appeals court hands down its ruling. If Sen. Warren is satisfied with the EPA’s answers to her questions, will opponents simply contact another prominent official? If the appeals court finds against the challenge to the permit, will opponents accept the ruling? Does this ongoing campaign, which risks both delaying a decades-deferred river cleanup and seeding false hope among upset Lee residents, have any terminal point?

Obviously we can’t convince those opposed to the disposal site in Lee, but those questions deserve answers. Rest of River opponents should be clear about how how much public money and time they are willing to expend — and how many more officials and rulings they’re prepared to appeal for the sake of appealing — knowing that their actions could lead to delaying or dismantling the remediation of a polluted river and passing the solution on to future generations. We believe that the perfect should not become the enemy of the good.

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