EPA to unveil 'Rest of River' plan June 18


LENOX -- After nearly three years of study and delays, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will lift the curtain on its "Rest of River" proposal for a cleanup of PCBs on a heavily contaminated, 10-mile stretch of the Housatonic River from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield into Lenox and points south.

The overall plan addresses the river's sediment and floodplain contamination extending into Connecticut, said agency regional spokesman Jim Murphy.

In view of the intense public interest in the proposal, the EPA session will be held on Wednesday, June 18, in the 500-seat Duffin Auditorium at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St. A "poster informational session" begins at 6 p.m., with EPA staffers available to address specific topics, Murphy said.

The formal presentation of the proposed plan is set for 7 p.m., followed by a question and answer session.

The text of the plan will be posted online in early June at www.epa.gov/region1/ge and copies will be available at most town halls in communities along the Housatonic River.

GE released the chemical, a probable cancer-causing agent, into the waterway from its transformer plant in Pittsfield from 1932 until the U.S. government banned the substance in 1977.

The EPA has estimated the potential cost of the cleanup to be borne by GE at up to $800 million. The two-mile Housa-
tonic cleanup in Pittsfield, a two-phase project completed at the end of 2006, cost the company about $100 million.

The upcoming project, which could involve excavation, dredging and capping at PCB "hot spots," specifically Woods Pond in Lenox, could be a long way off.

A formal public comment period extends from June 25 through Aug. 8, Murphy pointed out. Also to be scheduled is a public hearing for the oral presentation of comments for EPA consideration before a final decision is released. Procedures for submitting comments will be detailed in the plan and on the website.

Some local environmental groups recently voiced concern that the cleanup proposal might not be extensive enough for a thorough cleanup of the waterway.

Release of the EPA proposal has been delayed because of extensive, and at times difficult, discussions with GE, along with Massachusetts and Connecticut environmental officials, over a 16-month period ending last December, agency officials have said.

Murphy has told the Citizens Coordinating Council that the company and EPA are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on the cleanup.

"We came to no firm agreement on anything," he told the group during a meeting at the Lenox Library in January, "but came to an understanding of each other's positions."

That led Dennis Regan, Berk-
shire director of the Housatonic Valley Association, to predict a "99.9 percent certainty that GE will challenge it."

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Addressing concerns of citizens that contaminated PCB sediment might be trucked to a potential landfill at Lane Construction Co. on the Lee-Lenox Dale line, EPA and state environmental officials have emphasized that the material would be removed, perhaps by rail if not trucks, to a federally licensed out-of-state site.

According to environmental groups, GE could challenge the government's plan in court; likewise, citizens could resort to lawsuits if they consider the scope of the proposal inadequate.

Anticipating a major disruptive impact on roads and the regional economy, especially tourism, six communities organized a legal expense fund to pursue financial compensation from GE. At least $60,000 has been committed by Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield.

Based on its track record handling environmental issues, The Pawa Law Group, based in Newton, was hired to negotiate with GE. In April 2013, Pawa won a $236 million case for
the state of New Hampshire against ExxonMobil, following a 2003 lawsuit against oil companies that added the chemical MTBE to their auto fuel. A jury upheld the award.

Closer to home, in December 2012, Pawa appealed a state DEP permit for a concrete plant and an asphalt sand and gravel plant in Sheffield. The appeal was upheld in a court ruling that the plants would cause harmful air pollution and exceed allowable noise limits.

The Berkshire Regional Plan-
ning Commission is acting as agent for the six communities.

BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns has predicted a potential 15-year cleanup, citing an economic impact study showing that damages to the communities along the river could range from $250 million to $500 million.

Not only would traffic, homes and businesses be affected, he said, but residential property values near the waterway could decline, affecting communities' tax bases.

If you go

What: The U.S. EPA presents its proposal for a cleanup of PCBs from the Housatonic River, extending from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield into Connecticut.

Where: Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East Street, Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.; also Kent, Conn., Town Hall on Tuesday, June 24, 6 p.m.

Schedule: A "poster informational" session hosted by EPA officials, followed by a formal presentation of the agency's proposal, beginning at 7, with a public Q&A session.

Public comment period: June 25-Aug. 8.

Plan details: Available online in early June at epa.gov/region1/ge and at Town Halls in communities along the Housatonic.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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