C. Jeffrey Cook: Harsh impact of river clean-up

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PITTSFIELD — It is somewhat gratifying to see that, after decades of The Eagle's unrelenting strong criticism of the leadership of GE with regard to the contamination and cleanup of the Housatonic River, Clarence Fanto, one of the very capable thought leaders of The Eagle, is offering a more balanced approach to the challenges presented by the cleanup of the river south of the confluence of the east and west branches referred to by the EPA as Rest of River or Reaches 5A (from the confluence to New Lenox Road), 5B, 5C and 6 (Woods Pond). ("Amid cleanup standoff, best option may be to leave river alone," Clarence Fanto column, Eagle, April 14).

What The Eagle should do now is assign its very talented reporter Larry Parnass and Clarence to explore the following factors that have been forgotten or deliberately ignored by the leadership of the EPA and DEP:

In January, 2011, all Massachusetts environmental agencies joined in a letter stating that except for some cleanup of hot spots, particularly at Woods Pond, the portion of Rest of River from the confluence to Woods Pond (Reaches 5A through 6) should be left alone because the damage to a special and beautiful environment would be greater than the benefit. From that point on, the EPA and the group of highly committed environmentalists who dominate the Citizens Coordinating Council (CCC) put tremendous pressure on the agencies so that they have backed away from what is still the truth about what the proposed cleanup will mean to this part of the river and the adjoining neighborhoods.

Then we should have Larry and Clarence look at the decision of EPA to put off considering what the actual remedy will be in terms of the impact on 200-300 families that live in the neighborhoods on both sides of the river in Pittsfield and Lenox, even though we already know the following realities:

The proposed cleanup will take 12 to 15 years of approximately 10,000 truckloads per year of material being removed from the river and replaced with clean fill. Everyone living in neighborhoods along Holmes Road and East New Lenox Road should do the math and think about what that activity will be like in terms of truckloads per hour of each working day.

Although the earlier plans by GE showed the likely placement of the access roads and staging areas to move the material in and out of the river, de-water the removed material, and store and maintain all the heavy equipment to do this work, the placement of those areas is not being considered or shown to the neighborhoods at this stage of the process — even though it is a matter of common sense where they will have to be placed, considering the available open space and the constraints of the existing floodplains.

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Though I have been told that the EPA will work with GE to shorten the period that my neighborhood will be looking at and hearing all the work, the period will still be measured in years not months. During that time, it will be difficult for anyone living in the affected neighborhoods to sell their homes. The big problem not being addressed at all is that once the work starts near the neighborhoods up river and everyone sees what is really going to be involved, there will be a huge devaluation of, and difficulty in selling, homes in the neighborhoods down river even though the work will not start near those neighborhoods for years. The mayor of Pittsfield, the City Council and Board of Selectmen in Lenox should be demanding that the likely impact on their communities be addressed now and communicated to the people living in these neighborhoods so they understand what the impact of this project will be.

The environmentalists participating in the CCC have raised the issue that PCBs volatize in the air and present a risk to those living along the river. The EPA regularly has tested the air around the river and has not detected any levels of PCBs that present a health risk. Now what happens when there will be major excavation and transport of that material in proximity to the neighborhoods? For how many years?

The Housatonic has been a major recreational resource for our county. Larry and Clarence should look at what segments of Rest of River will be restricted from recreational use and for how long. What will it take for the floodplains to again look like what they look like today? The environmentalists point to the restoration of the segments of the river that were cleaned up in the first 1.5 miles of remediation. Those project areas were 50-100 yards across. In some places in Reach 5A, the river and floodplains are over a quarter of a mile across and involve some of the most sensitive environmental areas in the Commonwealth.

Right now is the time when The Eagle should be looking at what the impacts will be for (a) those families living along the river and (b) the very beautiful and environmentally sensitive areas that are about to be excavated and destroyed.

Add those impacts to the very reasonable questions Clarence is now raising and everyone will see more clearly why that proposed cleanup is not in our community's interest.

C. Jeffrey Cook is a member of the Citizens Coordinating Council and resides near the Housatonic River.


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