Our opinion: Regional EPA should stay course in Berkshires

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Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's long-overdue resignation on Thursday proved that there are, indeed, limits as to how long loyalty to the chief can protect a member of the Trump administration (Eagle, July 6). Displaying a cavalier attitude toward ethics and a capacity for corruption that some historians suggest may be unrivaled since the Harding administration, his continuing antics even managed to embarrass the president with their brazenness — no easy task. Mr. Pruitt now returns to the obscurity he so richly deserves.

His departure, while welcome, bears significance in the Berkshires because the EPA is involved to various degrees in several issues of local import. The agency, through its regional New England director, Alexandra Dunn, is overseeing non-binding mediation between the General Electric Company, the five towns that comprise the Rest of River Municipal Committee and environmental groups to hash out a plan that would rid the Housatonic River below Pittsfield of most of the cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, dumped there when GE used them in the manufacture of electrical transformers. The dispute centers upon an insistence by the towns (backed up by the EPA's Rest of River cleanup) that the PCBs that are removed be transported to a federally approved out-of-state toxic waste dump (none exist in the Bay State). GE would save an estimated $250 million by creating toxic dumping sites along the river, thereby avoiding the transportation costs.

The affected towns of Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield rightly question why GE was able to clean up similar PCB residue beginning in 2009 from the Hudson River and cart it away, while it continues to play hardball in the Rest of River case. All sides have hardened their positions, and should the parties fail to reach a compromise, the resulting EPA lawsuit could delay cleanup of any kind for many more years.

In an editorial meeting with The Eagle Ms. Dunn made it clear that she did not anticipate the EPA changing course in spite of Mr. Pruitt's reputation as being sympathetic to corporations in disputes with environmental officials. We hope that doesn't change going forward. The EPA has put forward an excellent cleanup agreement that remains the template for the Rest of River cleanup.

Additionally, Ms. Dunn pressured the City Council of Pittsfield, after years of delay, to agree to borrow $74 million to upgrade a wastewater treatment plant that was dumping unacceptable amounts of toxic effluents into the Housatonic. The argument had been made that Mr. Pruitt's lack of concern for the environment would spare the city the expense, allow it to flout regulations and continue dumping the waste as currently treated into the Housatonic for the foreseeable future. They had also questioned why Pittsfield should be held accountable when the river was already polluted thanks to GE's corporate irresponsibility. Ms. Dunn, who enjoys a considerable amount of autonomy as a regional director, assured The Eagle and civic leaders that the two issues were, in the EPA's view, unrelated and that the presence of one type of pollution did not let the city off the hook for another. Thanks to the Consent Decree cleanup, this is a cleaner river that Pittsfield shouldn't befoul.

Further, the EPA has also required Pittsfield and 259 other Bay State municipalities to undertake preventive and remedial measures to obtain a stormwater permit, for which the cost is estimated at $100,000 per year. This would involve eliminating illegal sewage discharge into stormwater systems, improving street sweeping, cleaning catch basins and other efforts. Improvements to Pittsfield's drinking water systems are needed and the EPA would administer low-cost loans to make that possible. The change at the top should not alter this reality.

President Trump's designated replacement for Mr. Pruitt, Andrew Wheeler, is a long-time coal industry lobbyist, inviting skepticism that he is any better suited to be entrusted with the health of the nation's environment than was his predecessor. Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that a change in leadership will reverse or have any effect on EPA policy at the ground level as articulated by Ms. Dunn and her capable department. Additionally, notwithstanding the pain that will be inflicted on Pittsfield tax and sewer ratepayers to finance the waste treatment and stormwater projects, the can had been kicked about as far down the road as it could be, and further delay would have been irresponsible. It is simply the right thing to do for the Housatonic.




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