Foes of planned PCB dump solicit comments for final EPA hearing Tuesday

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LEE — Three-and-a-half hours. That's all the time that remains for people to tell officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, over phone or computer lines, what they think of the agency's latest plan to remove toxins from the Housatonic River.

To help ensure that people comment at the EPA's final hearing Tuesday, opponents of a planned PCB dump in Lee mailed 15,000 notices to residents of five Berkshire County towns.

"Stop GE from poisoning our Berkshires!" the card reads. "Here is how your action and voice can help. This is our LAST chance!"

Cindy Mathias, of Lee, who helped shape the mail campaign, said opponents of a polychlorinated biphenyls disposal site in Lee dug deep to get the notices sent to residents of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge — the county towns that border the river on its run south from Pittsfield to the Connecticut line.

"We're putting everything into this," Mathias said. "The Berkshires will be ruined forever."

The EPA's final hearing opens at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday with an explanation of the new cleanup plan, reached through secret mediation among the EPA, the General Electric Co., municipalities and a few private groups.

Tuesday's hearing is the last time the EPA will accept live, oral comment. People have until Friday to submit written comments. To speak Tuesday, people must register Monday. For information on how to do that, visit epa.gov/ge-housatonic and click in the section labeled "Virtual Public Hearing Schedule."

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Opponents of the planned Upland Disposal Facility, in the former Lane quarry near the river and the Lenox Dale line, provided most of the comments at two earlier EPA hearings, held during the afternoon and evening of Aug. 26.

Mathias was one of those who spoke at the earlier hearings. Like many who oppose the dump plan, Mathias believes that local municipal officials should have sought comment from residents before agreeing to the settlement announced Feb. 10.

"We were bamboozled. The people never got a vote," Mathias said.

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Until joining in the settlement, the EPA had been against burying PCBs in Berkshire County. The agency is poised to order a cleanup that allows GE to bury about 1 million cubic yards of sediment containing lower levels of PCBs in a newly created Lee landfill. The river PCBs, the result of wholesale pollution by GE over decades from its transformer factory in Pittsfield, are listed as a probable carcinogen. The deal reached in February calls for the highest concentrations of PCBs to be sent to an official disposal site outside Massachusetts.

Many who spoke Aug. 26 called on the EPA to hold in-person hearings. But, the EPA declined to extend the comment period or provide a way for people to comment in person, as requested by many of those who spoke Aug. 26.

The EPA says all comments taken Tuesday from 6:30 to 10 p.m. will be recorded and transcribed. The material becomes part of the full administrative record.

The agency is providing a variety of ways that people's views can join that record, including a telephone line that is recorded, fax and regular mail.

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To see this year's changes in the permit, people can visit the permit at epa.gov/ge-housatonic. Click on "Draft Revised 2020 Permit/Proposed Remedial Action for the Housatonic River "Rest of River."

The changes are indicated in red, either with new text or strikeouts.

Comments can be emailed to r1housatonic@epa.gov, faxed to 617-918-0028 or mailed to GE-Housatonic River Site Public Comments, EPA Region 1, 5 Post Office Square (Mail Code SEMC-07-01), Boston, MA 02109-3912.

Tuesday's hearing is scheduled to be aired live on public access television in Pittsfield and South County.

Mathias, a 15-year resident of Lee, said the pandemic has made it harder for opponents to organize.

"The COVID put us way back in the fight," she said. "We're tiny, but we're mighty."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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