'No perfect solution': Concerns steady as Rest of River dealmakers again face the public
GREAT BARRINGTON — A calmer crowd of around 200 people lobbed questions Thursday at public officials behind a cleanup agreement between river-facing Berkshire towns and General Electric Co.
The meeting in the auditorium of Monument Mountain Regional High School followed a more fiery one Wednesday in Lee, where more than 300 residents railed against officials for allowing GE to install a PCB landfill in their town.
GE dumped PCBs into the Housatonic River for decades, and the community is united in its frustration at that sad fact. But how to clean the mess — and where to put the PCB-laden waste — remains a stickier topic.
Under the agreement signed this month, the company will remove PCBs from the river, shipping 100,000 cubic yards with the highest level of contamination to an out-of-state site approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to the cleanup, the agreement also includes $63 million from GE to the affected communities.
Chis Rembolt, Great Barrington's assistant town manager and director of planning and community development, said the towns faced a likely battle in federal court if they continued to fight GE.
"That was a very uncertain process," he said.
The county faced the prospect of three dumps, he said. The settlement agreement allowed the towns to bring that number to one, clean more of the river and make the landfill safer than any of the three that would exist if GE won.
"We wanted the highest protections possible," Rembolt said.
At one point, a man shouted questions about how the landfill's leachate would get treated before returning to the river. Moderator and retired judge Francis Spina asked an officer to remove the man for yelling out of turn, but an EPA leader said he'd answer the question.
Carbon is used to filter the PCBs, said Bryan Olson, director of the EPA's Office of Site Remediation and Restoration, and eventually the carbon fills up and must be removed.
"The water gets put back into the river after you take out all of the contaminants, yes," Olson said.
"There's no perfect solution."
This is not a done deal, Olson said, and officials would respond to every written comment before making a final decision. Written comments can be submitted to email@example.com.
Janice Castegnaro-Braim, Lee resident and real estate agent, said buyers are already getting scared away by the planned landfill.
"I'll go to my grave trying to stop this dump," she said with a red face as she yelled into the microphone.
PCBs are not safe and they cannot go far enough away, some said. Denise Forbes, of Housatonic, said she has cancer and she believes PCBs are likely to blame.
"What price can you put on a human life?" she said. "Why did you roll over and let GE get away with basically murder?"
The out-of-state landfill likely to receive the PCBs is in Detroit, Mich., Olson said.
"Ship these out of state," Forbes said. "Wherever you want. I don't care."
Ed Abrahams, a Select Board member in Great Barrington, said he, too, has had cancer in his family. And he's furious at GE for what it did. But he said there's only so much that our system allows us to do in the face of this quandary.
"Often the obstacle is legal," he said. "This is not a democratic pursuit; it's a judicial process."
And with the cleanup agreement, he said the environment becomes safer.
"If we get the PCBs out of the river they go into a safer place," he said.
The Great Barrington meeting offered some heated moments, but the night was altogether quieter than the roaring crowd heard Wednesday night.
One Lee resident on Wednesday called the agreement a "dirty deal," and "a slap in the face to all the people in Lee."
Sage Radachowsky, of Lenox Dale, said he's been a frequent flyer at public meetings on this issue for years. The process has not been a democratic one, he said. He asserted there are alternative methods — thermal, biological and chemical ones — of eliminating PCBs that the EPA should be considering. "Something is wrong with this process, and we feel it," he said, gesturing toward the angry crowd behind him.
One woman said she had a background in teaching children about erosion, and that Berkshire County doesn't have the appropriate soil composition to handle the planned leachate. She said it will fail in the future.
"This is a short-term bandaid to a longstanding PCB problem," she said.
A multibillion-dollar company like GE can afford to fully fix this problem, residents said.
"It's not a deal for us; it's a deal for GE!" shouted one woman from the Wednesday audience.
Jim Castagnaro, a Lee resident who lives on Woodland Road, said the landfill will be 1,600 feet from his property. He worked for decades in a paper mill so that he could leave something to his children, he said. "What am I leaving them? A dump?"
His property value will drop to nothing, he said, and the dump will put his family's health in jeopardy.
"Who'd want this 1,600 feet from their house? Raise your hand," he told town leaders and EPA officials. "Raise your hand! Anybody? I don't want it by my house either. Nobody wants it."
Kathleen Daoust, of Lee, said she grew up in the Morningside neighborhood in Pittsfield. Her mother worked on power transformers, developed cancer "and died a terrible death." She herself is a two-time cancer survivor, and her brother now has prostate cancer.
The town of Lee has a right to be passionate about this issue, she said, and the people of Lenox Dale have a right to be afraid for their property values.
"First, you sold out the Dale," Daoust said, referring to the neighborhood closest to the planned landfill. "You sold the Dale out."
Another Lee resident said she works in oncology, and she cried as she compared cancer cases here to what she saw elsewhere.
Joni Olsen, of Hutchinson Lane in Lenox, said the cleanup means trucks carrying PCBs will trek back and forth in front of her house for the next decade or so. About that, she said, "I am really, really, really nervous."
She said she's afraid to let her children play outside when that happens.
"I want to know what happens when this dirt that is full of toxic [expletive] gets put in a truck and is driven by my house — is it sealed?" she asked. "Is it going to leak like the garbage truck that drives by my house every week, and you see all that crap pouring out of the back?
"I want to know and I want an answer."
How breathable will the air be when those trucks drive by, Olsen wanted to know.
"Do we shut our windows and buy new filters for our air conditioners?" she asked.
The trucks will be sealed with liners, Olson said. And PCBs are more dangerous over time, he said, describing them as "not acutely hazardous."
"The problem is having people exposed to it everyday for 30 years; that's the problem," he said. "And that's what we're trying to fix."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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