Our Opinion: With new EPA permit, Housatonic cleanup a step closer to reality

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With a new Environmental Protection Agency permit in place, a Housatonic River cleanup years in the making takes another small step toward becoming a reality. ("EPA: New terms for river cleanup," Eagle, July 10.) With the terms of a grand bargain reached in February formally added to the proposal, Tuesday, July 14 begins a 45-day public comment period on the updated permit, culminating in a virtual public hearing set for Aug. 26. The Eagle encourages a robust local discussion on a project that will literally shift the landscape of our county.

Those upset at the thought of a PCB dump located in Berkshire County will find that controversial condition, unsurprisingly, still intact. For opponents of the plan who live near the proposed landfill site in Lee, these feelings might be understandably more intense. Nevertheless, with a path to a restored Housatonic River in sight, derailing this comprehensive cleanup plan — one that would take more than a decade to complete — would be unwise.

Among the terms from the February settlement agreement freshly formalized in the permit are some steps that should mitigate the impact to surrounding communities from a remediation process slated to last more than a decade.

The new permit moves up the timeline, meaning the vital work to restore the Housatonic could start and finish sooner. More efforts are focused on the surrounding floodplain, where extended remediation would eliminate the need for land-use restrictions on some residential properties and critical recreational parcels like Canoe Meadows. While the plan still includes "capping" some parts of the floodplain area, the updated permit would reduce this practice, meaning approximately 100 acres that would have retained some toxins would instead be cleaned entirely.

These are meaningful considerations for communities along the Housatonic that have borne the burden of General Electric Co.'s past pollution, and will likewise bear the impact of any long-term cleanup project's footprint.

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For some critics of the proposal, however, the elephant remains in the room: a proposed PCB landfill in Lee. In accordance with the Toxic Substances Control Act, all sediment with a PCB concentration of 50 parts per million or above — or at a minimum 100,000 cubic yards — will be shipped to an out-of-state disposal facility. The remainder, which the EPA estimates will have an average concentration of about half that threshold, will be stored more than a mile from public water sources in a Lee facility that will be built to exceed the specifications required to hold the material.

The grand bargain reached in February through mediation compelling GE to take responsibility for its poisonous past won the approval of several important local entities, including the surrounding municipal governments, Mass Audubon and Berkshire Environmental Action Team. Still, some groups — such as the Housatonic River Initiative and No PCB Dumps — have maintained opposition to a plan that includes a local landfill.

All things being equal, no one wants a PCB dump in their neck of the woods — especially Lee and Lenox Dale residents worried about effects on property values, among other things. What all should understand as a pressing and timely necessity, however, is holding GE accountable for the long overdue revitalization of the Housatonic River.

Immutable defense of local environs is commendable, but obdurate resistance to a comprehensive cleanup plan on the basis of a local landfill is, at this point, unproductive. The notion that GE would accept a sizable inflation of a $576 million project's most expensive line item — out-of-state disposal — is simply unrealistic, especially given current economic turmoil. And further putting off intervention, thus leaving the Housatonic in the contaminated state that it's already been in for too long, should not be an option.

Barring any appeals, prep work for the Housatonic cleanup project could begin as soon as 2022. Further legal challenges only stand to delay this.


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