Patty Carlino: River cleanup agreement right for Lee, Berkshires
LEE — Over the last few weeks since the announcement of the Housatonic Rest of River ( ROR) Settlement, I've stepped back, taken a deep breath, and thought again about the decision and, what it means to the town of Lee, as well as to all of Berkshire County. I've read all the letters to the editor. I've followed the social media to the extent possible. I've reread the material produced throughout the mediation. Still, I came once again to the same conclusion all eight parties that signed the settlement came to. While I might not like the outcome, it was the only outcome that would protect our town and the county. It certainly was not my desire to host any kind of a landfill in the town of Lee or in the county.
Having known for almost 20 years that the cleanup was coming, when the Municipal Rest Of River Committee was formed about seven years ago it was with one vision. NO landfills in Berkshire County. At that time it was well reported that the Lane property in Lee was being considered, as well as another site in Lee, on Forest Street, as well another site in Great Barrington. The towns had no input in the first phase of the project in Pittsfield, and we were not going to let that happen again.
When the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region 1 decision came out in 2016, we were somewhat comforted by the fact that their position required complete off site removal of PCBs out of state (Massachusetts does not have any certified facilities). Then came the battle. GE appealed the decision, it was brought to the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), and after many months of deliberation, the EAB came back on Jan. 26, 2018 with the declaration that, while they agreed with most of the Region 1 permit, the out-of-state removal was something they felt was inconsistent with EPA's initial findings that both on site and off site disposal would be safe. The EAB ruling was critical of Region 1 forcing a much more expensive cleanup that wasn't necessary. They sent us back to the table.
SEAT AT TABLE
We were approached by EPA with a request to enter into mediation to see if we could come to some kind of resolution. We entered mediation without really any expectation of what that would be, but at least we would be at the table this time. We hired a prominent environmental lawyer (Matt Pawa, of Hagens Berman) as well as an experienced environmental engineering firm (Jeffrey G. Hershberger, PG, of the ESS Group) both out of Boston, and we went to work.
During all this time the communities annually raised money at its public town meetings to offset the costs, currently at approximately $365,000, of taxpayer money. Over 18 months of mediation, yes, in executive meetings, as that is how such mediation must take place, it became clear that the 50/50 chance we had with a second appeal to the EAB board finding in our favor was a gamble we could not take. The alternative would be devastating to the whole county, as well as to my home town of Lee. So we mediated.
We mediated a settlement that primarily does three things. It cleans up the Housatonic River (currently an open, moving toxic landfill) and it contains what are considered low level toxins in a state of the art, safe and well protected/monitored landfill facility, built to the higher federal TSCA requirements which were not required but demanded by the five towns. It removes the higher level toxins (over 50 ppm) out- of- state. The agreement also does something else. It guarantees that should a safer, proven alternative to eradicate or neutralize PCBs become available, both GE and the EPA would be committed to exploring it before, during, and after the cleanup.
Just for clarification, not all comments made or printed in letters or on social media are correct. There will be NO leach fields at the landfill. The writer must have been confused. There will be a leachate collection system (the opposite of a leach field), which is part of the protection and monitoring of the landfill. .
The out-of-state facilities mentioned as taking PCBs are not in barren areas. In fact both the Michigan and New York sites are within 1-2 miles of schools, neighborhoods, and lakes
RISKED A LOSS
To those that believe the Housatonic River is making them sick or causing cancers, I ask: Do you believe the river should be cleaned up? And, if so, shouldn't it be cleaned-up as soon as possible? Wouldn't you want to eliminate years of litigation in order to end exposure to our families — which is what the river is doing today? A second loss to GE would have led to that very result. Do you not think if there were an alternative plan that was proven and feasible we would not have jumped at the chance to embrace it?
Lastly, the money. Not "greed," not a "payoff" just a hard fought, negotiated figure of money to compensate, and rightly so, the impacted communities, most specifically Lee and Lenox. How it will be used will be decided by voters at their respective public town meetings.
Of course I realize that the explanation of my decision will not make a difference with many of those dedicated to no landfills in Berkshire County. That's exactly where the ROR committee was seven years ago. I just wanted to make sure I reached out to those people in Lee and the county who still do not understand why the ROR committee, as well as all five Select Boards. the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) and Mass Audubon voted to approve this settlement.
It's been a few hard weeks since the announcement of the agreement, during which time I've reflected on the outcome, accepted the fact that I may have disappointed some friends, and lost some respect from others. But in the end I know that we made the right, if not popular, decision to sign the Settlement Agreement as it stands today, for the future of our children, our grandchildren, and our descendants of the town of Lee and all of Berkshire County.
Patty Carlino is a member of the Lee Select Board.
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