Citizens petition seeks vote to reject Lee's sign-on to Rest of River settlement
LEE — An attempt is underway to overturn the Select Board's approval of the five-town Rest of River-mediated settlement to clean the Housatonic River of toxic PCBs and place the low-level contaminated material in a new disposal facility near Woods Pond.
A citizens petition filed by Andrea Wadsworth, one of 47 town meeting representatives, seeks a vote at the May 14 annual town meeting to reject the settlement by asking the Select Board to "rescind their support" of the agreement.
Even if approved, the petition would be advisory and nonbinding, since Select Board votes involving a contract cannot be overturned by a citizens vote.
The settlement announced this month clears the way for the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its work permit for the General Electric Co.'s cleanup of the probable cancer-causing chemicals that have polluted the river from the 1930s until 1979. The Select Boards of Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield all voted unanimously in executive session this month in favor of the mediated agreement.
But, Bryan Olson, the EPA's director of the Region 1 Superfund and Emergency Management Division in Boston, has pointed out that it's not "a done deal," pending a final version of the work permit and public comment.
At public meetings held last week in Lee and Great Barrington, residents strongly protested the creation of what EPA calls a 20-acre, safe, state-of-the-art Upland Disposal Facility at a gravel pit formerly owned by Lane Construction Co. off Woodland and Willow Hill roads, across the river from the village of Lenox Dale.
The mediated settlement negotiated over 18 months by the Rest of River Municipal Committee includes a payment of $25 million each to Lenox and Lee, and $1.5 million each to Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield to cover the community impact of the cleanup, which would involve about 50,000 truckloads of contaminated material on roads in Lee and Lenox during certain phases of a 10- to 15-year project.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer negotiated a separate agreement, which would yield $8 million for the city. An informational session for Pittsfield residents is planned for 6 p.m. March 5 at Herberg Middle School, 501 Pomeroy Ave.
An Environmental Protection Agency official has estimated that GE’s cleanup costs could fall by $200 million under the revised plan. The company would save about a third of that amount, or $67 million, after agreeing to pay a total of $63 million to six local communities and to expand the scope of the cleanup.
Meanwhile, the environmental group Housatonic River Initiative, led by Executive Director Tim Gray, is raising money to hire environmental attorneys for a possible legal appeal of the new Rest of River agreement. A GoFundMe page on the group's new website, cleanthehousatonic.com, showed that $3,620 had been raised from 56 donors as of Wednesday, toward a goal of $50,000.
"We have not decided on a legal challenge yet," Gray told The Eagle. "We are still evaluating. We will issue our position paper soon with suggestions for a better way."
The initiative has scheduled a second community meeting on the settlement, for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Lenox Community Center. The organization founded by Gray in 1992 held a session in Lee this month. Of nine stakeholders involved in the mediation effort, the Housatonic River Initiative was the only one that declined to sign the agreement.
Signers of the agreement were the EPA, GE, the five South County towns as a single entity, Mass Audubon, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, the city of Pittsfield, Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey Cook, representing riverfront neighbors, and the state of Connecticut.
In a Jan. 30 letter to EPA Region 1 attorney Timothy Conway, Gray wrote that "our position is, and always has been, that no neighborhood should have to live near a PCB toxic waste dump, especially one newly created to expedite GE's participation in a settlement, trading an improvement to GE's bottom line for the health and safety of our citizens."
"Despite the significant lure of reaching an illusive closure," Gray stated, "the risk of a landfill, destined to fail [as they all eventually do] should compel all parties, even GE, to put aside the promise of cost savings for the greater good and moral imperative of human and environmental health and safety. Berkshire County residents have too long been exposed to too many sources of PCBs, deposited by GE in its hasty pursuit of increased profits."
Any legal challenge, if it happens, would occur after the EPA's final, revised Rest of River cleanup permit, to be issued this summer. A public hearing and a public comment period of 45 days or more would follow.
An appeal could be filed with the Environmental Appeals Board, a group of judges in Washington that oversees the EPA. After GE's appeal of the 2016 EPA permit requiring all PCB-contaminated material out of state, the board sent the document back to the EPA Boston office for review, stating that the agency had not proved its case that all material must be taken to a federally licensed facility in the Detroit area or in Texas, among 12 such sites.
If the EAB upholds the new EPA plan and rejects any appeal, the only recourse would be to take the case to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
In her petition, Wadsworth asks the Lee Select Board to renegotiate terms of the agreement to exclude a dump site from the town. More than the required 10 registered voters in the town have signed the document.
Lee Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard is reviewing the petition and will modify it if necessary, said Wadsworth, who chairs the Lee School Committee and is assistant superintendent of the Mount Greylock Regional School District. Her petition also has been submitted to Lee Town Clerk R. Christopher Brittain for review. Neither Pollard nor Brittain returned calls Wednesday seeking comment.
In an email interview, Wadsworth acknowledged that a town meeting vote in favor of the document would not undo the agreement.
"I believe the Selectmen, as elected officials, have the authority to enter into contracts for the town," she stated, adding that the authority "probably should be revisited."
In her view, the Select Board members "have done something that has weakened the public trust, whether intended or not." She described a vote on her petition as "the voice of the people. They are asking for a vote. It may be too late but the Town Representatives need to represent their constituents and record their will in a public record. This does that."
Although she supports a cleanup of the river, Wadsworth stated that all contaminated PCB material removed from the river and its shores should be shipped to an out-of-state facility. Under the agreement, which the EPA will finalize and submit for public comment this summer, 10 to 20 percent of the most toxic soil and sediment would be trucked to a federally licensed facility elsewhere in the nation. The rest of the low-level material would be placed in the new Lee site.
"I don't agree with taking the PCBs [and everyone else's] and making a PCB dump in Lee," Wadsworth said. "If this is such a good idea, then each town affected should build their own mini PCB dump in their town to clean their section. Or wait until technology supports a better alternative."
Wadsworth also stressed that "this is a public policy issue for me. I believe in the process of people governing themselves and when those elected by the people to be their voice stumble or fail, we must all get involved and reevaluate the process."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
This story has been modified to correct the cost savings achieved under the revised Rest of River cleanup plan.
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