Environmental groups say EPA's Housatonic River cleanup plan falls short


Photo Gallery | Activists working on the Housatonic River Cleanup

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Three leading environmental groups are throwing cold water on the recently released proposal by the federal government to reduce toxic PCB contamination of the Housatonic River from southern Pittsfield into Connecticut.

"It's a fairly weak plan," said Tim Gray, the Housatonic riverkeeper and executive director of the Lee-based Housatonic River Initiative. "They're proposing some things that are kind of worrisome. We have time to do the right thing for the river on behalf of future generations."

"I'm disappointed," said Dennis Regan, Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association, also in Lee. "I feel very strongly we have one shot to take toxins out of the river."

"It's appalling that after being involved in it for so long, the EPA would present such a weak cleanup," said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield. "Just to take out a little bit of the PCBs and then cap the river bottom is horrendous."

The plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls on GE to spend an estimated $619 million to dredge, excavate and remove the likely cancer-causing chemicals from riverbed sediment as well as flood plain soil in designated zones, followed by capping of "hot spot" areas for 10.5 miles from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox. The plan would remove 89 to 92 percent of PCBs annually from the most contaminated areas, such as Woods Pond.

Areas farther south would be targeted for a variety of cleanup approaches, including "monitored natural recovery" along the Housatonic from Sheffield through Connecticut into Long Island Sound.

The EPA plan would require 13 years to complete, but potential legal wrangling could delay the start for a few years, according to agency officials and environmental advocates. A public informational session is set for Wednesday, June 18, at 6 p.m. at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St.

Responding to an Eagle query, GE issued a statement critical of the plan but stopped short of a formal rejection. The company, which released PCBs into the river from its Pittsfield facilities from 1932 until the government banned the chemicals in 1977, plans to review the proposal.

Of nine options considered for a cleanup, the EPA chose a combination of alternatives described as a "balanced approach." The single more comprehensive option, with more extensive excavation and PCB removal would cost GE $917 million, not including transportation costs of contaminated material to out-of-state, federally licensed disposal sites.

That alternative, which would remove 96 to 98 percent of PCBs annually from designated areas, requires 52 years to complete.

From Gray's perspective, a major drawback of the EPA proposal is that it "buys into the idea that sensitive areas probably should not be cleaned up."

"One reason you clean up environmental hazards is to make sure sensitive species such as amphibians, mink, otters and organisms at the bottom of the riverbed have a clean habitat," he said. "PCBs are being cleaned up around the world not only because of their human health impact but also the ecological impact to all the critters that live in the river."

Gray described a recent meeting between the "fairly united environmental community" and EPA leaders as "greatly disappointing."

After nearly 40 years of involvement with PCB cleanup efforts, Gray said that alternative technology recently developed by Biotech Restorations of North Carolina should be tested for the river, as it is for the contaminated New England Log Homes site in Great Barrington.

"If Biotech could clean the river in a better way, it would be a model for the nation and the world," said Gray. He noted that the company had been involved in a successful California PCB cleanup and is willing to test PCB samples from the Housatonic at no cost to prove its less expensive approach works.

"Here we are with this idea we feel is a no-brainer," Gray said. "There's no really big hurry here. The thing is to get it right and do the best that can be done."

Winn's principal critique is that capping a moving river "doesn't go far enough. We need a more extensive excavation and dredging to remove as much of the PCBs as possible." She also described the EPA proposal as falling short of protecting habitats and rare species such as frogs and salamanders that are "contaminated and deformed."

Winn also contended that Unkamet Brook in Pittsfield remains "highly contaminated and has not been cleaned. People lose sight of that, PCBs still coming into Silver Lake." In her view, the first phase of the PCB removal project in Pittsfield is "not as complete as it should be."

"Capping is inadequate," said Regan, the Housatonic Valley Association's director. "It's like sweeping PCBs under the rug and then covering up the rug. Eventually, the PCBs are re-exposed."

Although he described some positive aspects of the EPA proposal -- including a cleanup behind four downstream dams and the planned transport of contaminated material by rail out of the county -- Regan advocated "a more thorough cleanup and the use of new technology."

Regan said he predicts that GE will file a lawsuit against the government proposal because "delay is a good tactic. This is a huge process and it will go on for a long time."

Litigation by environmental groups is also a possibility, he said, if the legal costs can be afforded.

"It's a David and Goliath problem," Regan said.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto


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