Frustration churns during Housatonic River Initiative meeting about planned PCB dump

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LEE — "Horrified. "Violated." "Sellout."

Residents strongly voiced opposition Monday in a meeting about a new cleanup agreement between General Electric Co. and Berkshire towns bordering the Housatonic River's contaminated shores. A local dumping ground for soils contaminated with PCBs is the main point of contention.

About 100 people packed a small meeting room at First Congregational Church. Organizers with the Housatonic River Initiative called upon the crowd to attend the more-formal meetings later in the week, and to come armed with hard-hitting questions for public officials.

There will be a meeting 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Lee High School auditorium, and another 6 p.m. Thursday at the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium.

Amy Whittaker Warner said the meetings allow the Environmental Protection Agency to say they've included the public, even though many in the community still don't know the dump is coming.

"Our participation in the meetings will be taken as assent," she said.

How safe will the site be? What will be done to ensure that? And how did we get here? Those questions rippled throughout the conversation on Monday. The heads of angry people shook side to side as others spoke.

Ed Lahey, the moderator, drew boisterous applause from the room when he called the agreement "a sellout." Elected officials are supposed to protect the people they serve, he said.

"This is not the way you protect them," he said.

His wife, Clare "Bunnie" Lahey, has come down with another bout of bladder cancer. She said she doesn't smoke, and that her doctor cites their home on the river as the cancer's probable cause.

Under the agreement, the company will rid the river of its PCBs, 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.

While proponents of the plan say the agreement offers a faster, better cleanup and avoids the risk of a worse scenario if the legal battle against GE were lost, opponents who packed the room on Monday said officials "went belly up."

"The almighty dollar has spoken," Harold Armstrong said. "I think they should be ashamed of themselves."

The government has failed the people at every level, Bunnie Lahey said.

"We've come down to — we have to be our own advocates," she said. "It's really crazy."

Under the agreement, a 20-acre landfill at Lane Construction will receive more than 1 million cubic yards of material.

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EPA officials described the planned landfill as safe and state-of-the-art. But Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, recalled the group's failed former fight against the PCB landfill in Pittsfield, next to Allendale Elementary School — a site that has had some issues with leaching, he said.

He recalled how the site was predicted to be safe, and how GE brought the landfill's liner into one meeting as evidence to the site's safety. Gray said he later discovered the liner's warranty was void if the product comes into contact with chemicals.

Jessie McCormick, who said she lives near the planned dump site, said the prospect of a PCB dump in her neighborhood is unacceptable.

"Why is this being allowed when we can't even have straws in some towns, or bags?"

Benno Friedman, of Sheffield, said the towns got to vote on things like bans on plastic bags, cannabis and water bottles. To leave the people's voice out of something as important as a PCB dump, he said, leaves them feeling

"Violated," offered one woman from the crowd.

He recycled it. "Violated," he said.

And the planned landfill will be on the outskirts of October Mountain State Forest.

"This is outrageous!" Gray said. "Welcome to our state forest. Don't breathe."

The Housatonic River Initiative will ask for an extension to the comment period, Gray said. He said the initiative is also looking to hire an environmental attorney to assess the legal path forward.

To that effect, the initiative plans to raise funds online with a GoFundMe page. Checks can also be sent to the Housatonic River Initiative at P.O. Box 321 Lenox Dale, Mass., 01242.

Gray stressed that despite the mess of the cleanup, it's still worthwhile to do. He said it's better to endure the PCBs in the air during a cleanup than to endure them for decades more as they continue to contaminate the environment.

"When they're dredging it, it will be a one-time event of getting it out," he said. "A one-time event of cleaning it up is a lot safer than breathing it our whole lives in the Housatonic River. And that's what we've done here."

What are the next legal steps for residents who are angry about the dump? One dump is bad, most agree, but what if they get three instead?

Peter Hofman said he's not happy about the dump, but "the chances of our succeeding by rejecting this settlement and going to court are really, really low."

"If we can't get rid of the dump then let's do everything we can to hold EPA accountable," he said. "We can't put all our eggs in the 'no-dump' basket."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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