Opponents mobilize to fight local PCB dump
Housatonic River Initiative, opposing any local PCB landfills, refused to sign settlement agreement
LEE — Just one party to mediation rejected an agreement to entomb more than a million cubic yards of PCB-tainted sediments in a Lee landfill.
Over the weekend, that group’s leader and his allies sounded a call, hoping to dramatize the depth of local opposition when the pact was made public Monday.
Tim Gray of Lee, executive director of the nonprofit Housatonic River Initiative, said he applauds aspects of the agreement reached to end a logjam over how to next address the General Electric Co.’s pollution of the Housatonic River with polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen.
The plan calls for soils and sediments with the most hazardous concentration of PCBs to be sent to an out-of-state disposal facility, as the EPA ordered in its 2016 final “Rest of River” permit.
But the deal to be announced Monday carved out an exception for material with PCB concentrations of less than the amount that constitutes hazardous waste under one federal law or, under another law, as PCB waste that requires shipment to a chemical waste landfill.
Gray, who participated in the mediation but refused to sign the pact, believes residents of six Berkshire County communities — not their elected or appointed officials — should choose whether to accept a local PCB disposal site, even one with lower-level toxins. His group has tracked the cleanup for decades and been a central player, a role that a top EPA official recently applauded.
“We’ve always been against dumps,” Gray said Saturday by a woodstove in his living room, the Housatonic visible at the edge of his property. “We believe the people of each town should decide whether they want a dump or not.”
Dave Gibbs of Pittsfield, president of HRI’s board and a neighbor to GE waste sites along Newell Street, isn’t surprised the prospect of local PCB dumping is back. He said HRI plans to protest.
“Fight it. Whatever we can do,” Gibbs said. “If we have to litigate it, we’ll come up with the money. We’ve done it before.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency will convene public meetings on the plan Feb. 19 in Lee, Feb. 20 in Great Barrington and March 5 in Pittsfield to explain the agreement. Public comments on a revised permit will also be considered and another meeting yet to be scheduled, the agency says, with a final permit due later this year.
As a party to mediation, Gray had agreed not to disclose details. But after the EPA announced Friday it would reveal “significant recent developments,” he rolled into action. He paid Facebook to widely share a post on HRI’s page seeking to get people out to Monday’s announcement.
On Saturday, Gray joined with Clare Lahey, a Lee resident opposed to the landfill, to canvass streets in Lenox Dale and Lenox and to rally opposition. Lahey, an athletic 78, has fought two bladder cancer tumors she believes could be related to PCB exposure.
Their first stop was at the home of Lahey’s neighbor, Marilyn Hansen, a member of the Lee Conservation Commission. Both families live south of the landfill. Lahey carried a white sign taped to a wooden handle reading, “STOP GE TOXIC DUMP IN LENOX DALE.”
Though the site is actually across the Housatonic in Lee, Lenox Dale is the closest village. Hansen said the landfill could hamper what she sees as the community’s revival.
“It’s going to impact everyone,” Hansen said from her porch Saturday. She opposes local burial. “GE needs to step up to the plate and take responsibility.”
The agreement narrows three possible disposal sites to just one: a 20-acre landfill within a 75-acre property GE is poised to acquire within what’s known locally as the Lane Construction quarry. Properties elsewhere in Berkshire County, including Housatonic, are no longer under consideration.
Mike Shove came out of his family’s house on Crystal Street in Lenox Dale to hear Lahey’s pitch to attend the Monday announcement. His father, Rick, had already told him about it. The family lives across the river from the sprawling quarry site.
“It’s taking a bad thing and keeping it bad, by dumping it where it could get into water,” Mike Shove said. He thanked Lahey for coming by. “It’s nice to see somebody caring about the environment,” he told The Eagle.
Gray rejoined Lahey, having split off to place leaflets in buildings around the foot of Walker Street. They worked their way up Crystal Street, knocking on doors, then paused to speak with two women and one man at the post office and to tape up a flyer.
“If the community’s together on this, you can beat it,” Gray told Lahey.
Any public opposition that emerges will have to be reconciled with the fact that the top boards in all five river towns south of Pittsfield have already signed on to the agreement.
Select Board Chairman Ed Lane of Lenox, who lives across the river from the quarry site, said he hopes discord can be avoided.
“Some say it’s all wrong. Some say it’s all right,” Lane said of the agreement. “Eventually, something had to get done. I feel this is the best deal we’re going to get.”
He declined to predict how residents will respond. “I’m not a betting man. Nothing’s a sure thing.”
Channing Gibson, the town’s representative to the talks and a former Select Board member, said that Lenox, like other members of a five-town group, saw a chance to have a seat at the table with GE and the EPA — and took it. He said officials were pleased when EPA proposed the “hybrid” cleanup, later agreed to, that would send sediments with an average PCB concentrations of 50 parts per million or more out of the county.
“It boils down to getting the worst materials out of state,” Gibson said.
Patricia Carlino, a longtime member of Lee’s Select Board, had been against local disposal for years — but came around due to assurances in the current plan.
“In the long run, do I want a landfill in my town? No. But if I’m going to be forced with a landfill in my town, I want it to be the safest and the nicest and the best it can be,” she said.
Just past noon Saturday, Gray and Lahey headed up Elm Street, where resident Amy Lafave came out to listen, then climbed further on to the fire station and spoke with a police officer.
Asked how she thinks her Lenox Dale neighbors will take news of the planned landfill, Lafave didn’t hesitate.
“Not well. Who wants a toxic waste site?” she asked. “At some point, sooner or later, those caps are going to fail.”
The settlement agreement details steps GE must take to safeguard against PCBs leaching from the landfill, including a double liner, the ability to collect material that may leach, a cap and a system to monitor groundwater. The site is 1,000 feet from the river and the landfill must be at least 15 feet above groundwater levels. As a precaution, the company must pay to connect nearby homes that use private wells to town water.
Gray and Gibbs say that even “state of the art” landfills, the term EPA is using, can fail. They note problems that beset a PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina.
“Our study of dumps through the years is that they haven’t changed much,” Gray said. “They’ve been having trouble with some of the liners in Pittsfield already.”
Officials with GE and the EPA say the new plan will get the cleanup done faster and better. The agreement, for instance, calls for GE to remove and contain some of the affected areas that the 2016 permit allowed the company to “cap” and leave in place — roughly 100 acres in all.
The plan is backed by the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, despite the fact that its leader, Jane Winn, has also opposed local PCB dumps.
In Lenox center, Gray and Lahey found Jim Whaling. The retired contractor had just picked up his mail and was striding along Walker Street, the last inch of a cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth. He listened and nodded. Later, Whaling said he’s followed the PCB saga. He doesn’t like the settlement agreement.
“We think it’s important to keep it the way it is,” he said of Lenox. “Voicing our opinion is the best way to do it.”
Inside Purple Plume, a clothing store, Gray handed out a leaflet, briefed listeners on the development and turned to leave. “It’s another chapter in a 20-year fight starting up again,” he said.
Inside the Olde Heritage Tavern, Gray left a flyer for the owner, then paused to visit with friends, one sitting over a plate of sweet potato fries she planned to bring home, and caught them up on the news.
“A dump, that breaks it for us,” he told the women.
After the activists visited The Bookstore, leaflets about Monday’s announcement and the local call to action went up on both sides of the door. They faced Housatonic Street, bordered in blue tape, not nestled with other posters in the entryway.
“People need to know that,” the shop’s owner, Matt Tannenbaum, said when asked why the leaflets earned quick and prominent display. “People are just getting screwed once again. All I can do is my part.”
Gray dismisses a major element of the agreement — the payment of $63 million to affected communities — as “dumps for dollars.”
The EPA’s 2016 permit didn’t allow PCB disposal in Berkshire County. The state Department of Environmental Protection didn’t engage in the mediation and has opposed local burial.
Gray said that despite improvements in the cleanup outlined in the agreement, local disposal isn’t in the local interest.
“The dumps are the sticking point,” he said of his refusal to sign on. “That’s a big no-no for us.”
Bryan Olson, a senior EPA official who worked on the GE pollution for more than a decade earlier in his career, credits HRI with helping to shape a stronger cleanup. He said Gray’s group was “a great partner” in the talks.
“Just because HRI is not signing, it doesn’t mean they’re not reflected in this deal,” Olson said. “EPA has worked with them for a long time. We intend to improve this overall cleanup by some of the ideas that they have, moving forward.”
For example, the agreement calls for the EPA to examine alternative approaches to neutralizing the harm PCBs pose to health. That’s a recurring demand by HRI, which Gray feels has not been taken seriously.
As a group, HRI has long been designated by the EPA to receive technical assistance grants. Gray said the group has used most of about $200,000 received over the years to hire expert help and host conferences that have drawn hundreds of participants.
Olson, the senior EPA official and expert on big cleanups, said the 2016 permit did not allow local PCB disposal because the agency wasn’t sure it could implement that, given local opposition.
“If we didn’t have any public acceptance … we just couldn’t implement it. It wasn’t our strongest argument.”
Whether the settlement agreement moves forward could still hang on public acceptance — or an eventual court challenge.
On that, the initiative lies largely with Gray and residents.
On Sunday, Gray gathered a group at his home to make signs opposing Monday’s announcement. “We think there’s a hidden opposition out there, [people] who have been left in the dark and don’t know what’s going on.”
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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