Groups assail value of Housatonic cleanup mediation
LENOX — Leaders of local environmental groups are prohibited from saying what's afoot in talks over how industrial toxins will be removed from reaches of the Housatonic River.
But they sounded off Thursday on what they see as shortcomings in how an appointed mediator, attorney John G. Bickerman, is running the show.
"Get rid of him," said Judith Herkimer of the Housatonic Environmental Action League.
More than a year ago, the Environmental Appeals Board asked the federal government to provide support for a decision to require the General Electric Co. to ship PCB-tainted sediment pulled from the river out of Massachusetts. The company dumped polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen, into the river for decades.
Though the Environmental Protection Agency planned to respond to the court early last summer, it instead entered into mediation overseen by Bickerman, joined by GE, Berkshire County municipalities and environmental groups.
At a meeting Thursday of the Citizens Coordinating Council, the main clearinghouse for public information on the river cleanup, Dean Tagliaferro of the EPA offered a brief update on the status of mediation. He said participating groups have signed confidentiality agreements.
"Hopefully that will pick up speed," Tagliaferro said of mediation, which got underway late last spring.
Representatives of environmental groups that participate in council meetings seized on what the agenda billed as an "update on mediation" to excoriate the private proceeding — and Bickerman himself.
Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, challenged Tagliaferro's statement, saying not all groups have signed the confidentiality document.
"And you can take that back to the mediator," Winn said. "I'm extremely frustrated."
In a telephone interview Friday, Bickerman said he believes the mediation is making progress.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said.
And despite criticism voiced Thursday about his handling of the talks, Bickerman said most participants are on board. "It is my sense that almost all of the parties are satisfied with my role as a mediator," he said.
Still, many voices around the table at the council meeting questioned that assessment.
Tim Gray, founder of the Housatonic River Initiative, said he has had bad experiences with Bickerman, which he declined to detail.
"They're saying now that you're not supposed to say things," he told the council, indicating he was restrained from candid comments. "I don't think it's right. There have been no meetings that have meaning so far."
"I feel like it's a set-up and I'm worried about it," Gray said of the mediation. "It's been going like a tortoise. It's just not going well. I'm going to stop there."
But he didn't stop. "Somebody should be watching the mediation, other than Mr. Bickerman," Gray said.
The EPA ordered GE in late 2016 to spend as much as $613 million over 13 years to remove sediment and soil contaminated with PCBs from miles of the river south of Pittsfield center. Key elements of the "Rest of River" cleanup remain on hold, after GE appealed the EPA order, the case went to a Washington court and now mediation continues.
If GE manages to win concessions on the EPA requirement for out-of-state PCB dumping, estimates say the financially troubled company could save $250 million.
Herkimer, of the Connecticut-based Housatonic Environmental Action League, said her group and others earlier questioned Bickerman's selection as mediator. "We have never agreed on attorney Bickerman," she said. "He's not the man for this job."
"All we're getting is glazed eyes," she said, looking around the meeting space. "I have no hopes for this mediation and hope that it breaks down."
Audrey Cole, another member of the Housatonic Environmental Action League, said she believes Bickerman's selection was designed to ensure that the closed-door talks fail, rendering the process "a clown show."
"He makes EPA look even more ridiculous that it accepted this person," Cole said of Bickerman's selection as mediator.
Tagliaferro said he would relay the groups' concerns to Tim Conway, an EPA attorney who was on the agenda but did not attend the meeting.
And when pressed, he also said he would communicate the criticism to Bickerman.
Dennis Regan, Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association, asked Tagliaferro how long the EPA will participate in the mediation, given local questions about its value.
Tagliaferro said the agency has no set timeline for the process, but added that at some point, "if there is no progress made," senior staff with the EPA would review its status.
"We do have bosses above us in Washington," Tagliaferro said.
Bickerman said Friday he cannot provide a set timeline for the mediation, saying circumstances during negotiations will dictate the pace.
"It is my goal to move this process as rapidly as possible," he said. "I'm loathe to predict how long."
Meantime, Tagliaferro said the agency continues to work on its response to the Environmental Appeals Board directive to the agency in January 2018 to re-examine the grounds for its order that GE ship tainted soils and sediments out of the state.
Patrick Field, who runs the council meetings on behalf of the Consensus Building Institute, acknowledged frustration expressed by the environmental groups. Field said they deserve action on a cleanup.
"And we're not getting that," he said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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