How 5 Berkshires task force members struck a PCB cleanup deal with GE
'If forced to have a landfill in my town, I want it to be the safest, nicest, best it can be'
LENOX — Shortly after Patricia Carlino, a Lee Select Board member for 22 years, joined a five-town task force aiming to win a compromise PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River downstream from southeast Pittsfield, she took a strong stand against a proposed local dumping site for excavated toxic material.
“I’ll chain myself to the fence before the bulldozer comes in,” she declared to members of the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee.
But what changed? After more than a year of mediation involving GE, the EPA, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, Carlino was singing a very different tune.
“In the long run, do I want a landfill in my town? No,” Carlino told The Eagle in a briefing about the settlement agreement. “But if I'm going to be forced to have a landfill in my town, I want it to be the safest and the nicest and the best it can be. And I think we've done that with the help of the EPA.”
The resulting settlement includes not only a more wide-ranging, thorough cleanup of the river polluted by probable cancer-causing PCB chemicals but also, a safe (by federal standards) burial site atop a landfill at the former Lane Construction quarry in Lee, more than 1,000 feet from the river, to store the less toxic material, while the dangerous contaminants are trucked out of state to a distant, federally licensed facility.
And, for the five towns, there’s ample compensation for the impact of a 10 year-plus cleanup. Lee and Lenox each get about $25 million, while Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield get about $1.5 million apiece. In a separate mediated settlement, Mayor Linda Tyer and her team secured an $8 million payout for the city.
'Opportunity to engage'
For Channing Gibson, the former Lenox Select Board member who represented the town on the committee, mediation was a chance to strike a deal after GE rejected the EPA’s original 2016 cleanup plan requiring total out-of-state shipment of all PCB material, costing the company $150 million to $250 million out of the $613 million project.
Under legal assault by GE, the EPA’s Washington, D.C., court known as the Environmental Appeals Board challenged the off-site PCB shipment requirement. Mediation, starting in 2018, seemed like the course of last resort.
“EPA gave us the opportunity to engage with General Electric,” Gibson said. “This was a real opportunity for the towns. It was our first chance to have a seat at the table in a real way and hope that we could come out of this with improvements to what we were going to get.”
Encouraging words emerged as mediation continued, Gibson said.
“EPA proposed a hybrid cleanup, getting the worst, most toxic materials out of state. EPA wanted an enhanced cleanup. And we began to see that GE was willing to negotiate on these things.”
Gibson stressed that money for the towns wasn’t the priority at the start.
“We really wanted to see if this settlement could provide a better cleanup and protect public health,” he said. “We knew going in that GE wanted to save money. That was a given, obviously. Otherwise they wouldn't be at the table.”
As it turned out, according to the EPA’s Brian Olson, GE saved about $60 million off the original $613 million cleanup cost. And the towns avoided a costly lawsuit in federal court that EPA predicted they had only a 50-50 chance of winning.
Olson, who directs the Superfund and Emergency Management Division in the EPA’s Boston office, noted that the river itself has been a landfill for the past 50 to 75 years.
For Lee and Lenox, the settlement projects 50,000 truckloads of contaminants hauled away on town roads during the decade-long project, about half the number estimated in the 2016 cleanup plan.
Last week, the select boards of all five towns have unanimously voted to support the compromise settlement.
"We're very pleased with the deal as it is,” Gibson declared. “We feel human health is protected.”
Carlino described the Housatonic as a “hazardous waste site, and that wasn't an option. That's not gonna happen. And I applaud EPA because they're not going to let it happen. I have children, I have grandchildren, I'll have great grandchildren at some point. I want to leave them with something I can feel comfortable with that is not going to impact their lives in a negative way.”
After touring the proposed landfill for the less-toxic PCBs, known as the Upland Disposal Facility, Carlino felt reassured that it was more distant from the river and residential neighborhoods than she expected. And Gibson found an already “heavily disturbed” quarry, an industrial wasteland “not anywhere close to a pristine environment.”
For Great Barrington, Rising Pond in the village of Housatonic is spared from a potential toxic dumping site in the Risingdale neighborhood, and GE’s option on the former mill there will be returned to the town for economic development opportunities.
The $55 million community impact settlement was embraced by representatives of all five towns, said Stephen Shatz, the Stockbridge representative on the five-town task force. He acknowledged that Carlino, the Lee Select Board member, pushed for $65 million from GE.
“We tried hard,” Carlino said.
“But we couldn’t quite get there,” Shatz added.
Shatz explained that each community will make its own decision on how the money will be spent once it’s distributed in about two years. Stockbridge will see little impact from the cleanup, he noted, though some contaminated sediments will be removed in the Glendale Dam area.
Rene Wood, Sheffield’s envoy on the task force, stressed the benefits of individual groups, such as the City of Pittsfield and MassAudubon, conducting separate negotiations, along with teamwork.
“I think we have an agreement that is much stronger because of these individual parts than it ever would have been if we had been negotiating as a single group,” Wood said. “In my heart, I do not feel that this agreement would have been as strong as it is, which it is extremely strong, if we hadn't negotiated as a team. It's incredible to me how this has all come out.”
According to Shatz, when mediation began, there was a zero-sum, all-or-nothing approach, “which meant you either won or lost. There was no real understanding of what mediation was about.”
But a new team from EPA and a management change at GE broke the ice, enabling a settlement to emerge, he said.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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