Rest of River dealmakers face waves of frustration over PCB landfill
LEE — A panel of Berkshire leaders and their environmental partners struggled to defuse the ire of a community angry about a PCB landfill planned for Lee.
About 300 people packed the auditorium of Lee High School Wednesday, carrying signs and placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the public officials they said failed to protect them and excluded them from the decision making process.
The comments came during an emotional public meeting hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Rest of River Municipal Committee, made up of town leaders who negotiated a new cleanup agreement with General Electric Co.
The company dumped PCBs into the Housatonic River for decades and the new agreement concludes 20 years of legal battles around how the river will be cleaned.
Under the agreement, the company will remove PCBs from the river, shipping 100,000 cubic yards with the highest level of contamination to an EPA-approved site out of state. In addition to the cleanup, the agreement also includes $63 million from GE to the affected communities.
Towns most impacted by the cleanup, Lenox and Lee, are slated to get $25 million each.
Residents raised concerns during the meeting about the safety of the planned dump at the former Lane Construction site, and about the long-awaited cleanup planned by General Electric Co.
Marybeth Mitts, a Select Board member in Lenox, called the planned landfill "the best of a bad situation."
"Unfortunately, that dump needs to be close to Woods Pond because that's where most of the toxins are," she said. "If we had voted against this they could have put three dumps in Berkshire County."
There will be another meeting 6 p.m. Thursday in Monument Mountain Regional High School's auditorium.
Patricia Carlino, a longtime member of the Lee Select Board and one of the leaders who negotiated the settlement, said she decided to sign an agreement that outlined plans for the Lee dump because she felt it was the best path forward.
"This is probably the hardest decision that I've ever had to make," she said.
She said she started negotiations ready to tie herself to the fence before the first backhoe came through, but then she familiarized herself with the risks of GE winning the legal battles the towns were facing.
"Passionate I was about it," she said. "Realistic I was not."
She said the Environmental Appeals Board disagreed with the towns and the EPA when they said another landfill shouldn't be allowed in Berkshire County.
"If we lose, we have to appeal to the court," Carlino said. "And it would be an uphill battle."
Losing the battle could mean three landfills, she said.
"So we mediated," she said.
At times, town leaders scolded residents for yelling, booing and talking out of turn, but it only did more to fuel the fire.
As presenters struggled to speak amidst the roar of angry crowd, Rene Wood, a member of the Sheffield Select Board, asked them "why are you being so rude?"
"Is it because your minds are so made up that you are not willing to listen to a presentation?" She asked. "If you're here just to hold your signs up and be rude. That's fine we will not say another damn word."
Wood's comments drew boos from the crowd. She apologized later in the event, which started at 6 p.m. and stretched well beyond 10 p.m.
Bryan Olson, director of the EPA's Office of Site Remediation and Restoration, said the contaminated soil at the planned dump will be at levels low enough that there are no laws requiring the dump to be lined at all.
Olson said the most contaminated soils will be shipped out of state, but right now, they're sitting in the river.
Many residents asked a series of questions about how the site will be monitored. Olson said GE would be required to monitor the dump, and the EPA would oversee that monitoring.
The landfill will be lined with very thick plastic, and that liner would be heated and fused together. If that liner fails, Olson said, GE would have to fix it.
And the soils are contaminated at low levels, he reminded the crowd, and yet GE will build a dump as safe as if it were contaminated at higher levels.
Olson said the former Lane site was chosen in part because a significant portion of the materials coming out of the river was located within a couple miles of the site. Using it offered an opportunity to mitigate the effects of truck traffic during construction. And "50,000 trucks is a lot of trucks."
Olson said, too, that shipping the material out of state doesn't mean it won't be in someone else's backyard.
"We're not talking about sending this to the middle of nowhere," he said.
Town leaders said they didn't yet have plans for how to use the money that GE agreed to give them. The towns would get a say in that, they said.
One sign raised high read: "Don't sell us down the river."
Many residents told officials they would fight to bring the matter to a public vote.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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