PCB dump in the Berkshires? It's on the table, activist reveals
LENOX — Contaminated soil excavated from the Housatonic River potentially could be dumped in Berkshire neighborhoods under the terms of a mediated settlement pending between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric Co.
The terms of the deal remain officially under wraps, but a party to the mediation effort revealed publicly this week that the secret talks over cleaning up PCB pollution south of Pittsfield now include possibility of local dumping of the material, which is believed to cause cancer.
"This is very unfair, that we're going to build dumps in neighborhoods" in Lee, Lenox Dale or the Risingdale section of Housatonic, said Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative.
"Neighborhoods that might be targeted should be allowed to be in the discussion," he said. "I hope EPA can discuss this with the mediation partners to see if there are things we can tell the public about what's on the table. People need to be included. It's their home; it's their site; it's their county."
Gray, who has led the charge against any local disposal site for toxic chemicals removed from the river, its banks or flood plains, made the revelations during Wednesday's quarterly meeting of the EPA Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council in the Lenox Library.
He acknowledged that he might "get in trouble" for discussing the confidential mediation effort since he's a participant. But he demanded that "everything in the mediation be opened to the public. This would be a very smart thing to have the public involved" in the ongoing negotiations.
Other members of the group also blasted any negotiated agreement among GE, the EPA and five South Berkshire communities that include potential local dump sites.
In its response to the EPA's proposed cleanup plan, GE has asserted that instead of shipping excavated PCB soil and sediment to a federally licensed facility out of state, the material should be disposed into an engineered for safety local landfill, potentially at the Lane Construction site off Willow Road in Lee, adjacent to the river and across from Lenox Dale.
Other proposed sites are off Forest Street in Lee near Goose Pond or near Rising Pond in the Great Barrington village of Housatonic.
Local disposal would save the company up to $250 million, according to GE. The original EPA cleanup plan unveiled in 2014 carried an estimated price tag of $613 million at the time for a 13-year project to rid the river of PCB hot spots from southeast Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox, which would be dredged and deepened.
At the council's meeting, several residents of Housatonic and other riverfront towns spoke out against any local dumping of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) material. Although GE is a member of the citizens council, the company has not participated in the council meetings for the past two years.
"I'm very concerned because I live in an area where they're proposing to dump PCBs," said resident Denise Forbes. "If there's mediation going on that we're not allowed to know about, that is really out of control and we need to know more. We're concerned about our health, water and everything in our area. We have a lot of children in Housatonic, it's a very busy area. We don't want PCBs dumped in the Risingdale area."
A longtime, self-described steward of the river, Gray is a champion of exploring innovative, alternative thermal absorption and biological technologies to clean the river of PCBs, which General Electric released into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield electrical transformer plant from the 1930s until 1979, after the EPA banned the chemical.
The EPA's proposed cleanup plan included disposal of excavated, toxic material at an out-of-state, federally licensed facility, agency attorney Tim Conway told the group. But in 2017, five stakeholders disputed the proposed permit to the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, he noted.
In 2018, the three-judge panel supported most of the EPA cleanup proposal except for the out-of-state waste disposal requirement. It asked the agency to reconsider the requirement for out-of-state disposal. As a result, the agency's Boston regional office was tasked to provide additional information, a process still underway.
But on a separate track, the EPA's Region 1 office also launched a mediation effort "to see if there was one solution all the parties could agree with that would lead to a faster, better, more comprehensive cleanup and would be consistent with the 2001 consent decree that governed all the cleanups in Pittsfield," Conway explained to the council and members of the public.
The mediation effort led by Washington attorney John Bickerman that began in May 2018 has been confidential, Conway noted, "on the theory that would assist all parties in having more candid discussions to see if they could reach an agreement."
Those talks are continuing, he added, "so we can't have any public disclosure on it. Whenever there is an agreement, or if the parties decide not to continue the mediation, then the parties will be able to present information on what the settlement would be, or that the effort has not been successful."
If the mediation yields an agreement, it would become a public document and the EPA would revise its original permit, modifying the cleanup plan to incorporate any changes, Conway stated. EPA would invite public comment on the revisions and would evaluate the response before issuing a final cleanup plan.
The agency retains the option to hold firm to its decision requiring out-of-state toxic waste disposal, Conway added.
"If we do that, and if it is challenged again [by GE], the Environmental Appeals Board could tell us that we have not adequately supported our decision and then tell us that the permit and the cleanup plan can't go forward."
He also noted that if the appeals board eventually accepts the EPA's original plan, including out-of-state disposal, GE still could file a lawsuit challenging that decision at the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
Eight of the 21 operating commercial hazardous waste landfills in the U.S. hold a permit for disposal of PCB-contaminated materials under the Toxic Substances Control Act. None are in New England.
When GE cleaned the upper Hudson River of PCBs, a $1.6 billion project from 2009 to 2015, the contaminated material was shipped out-of-state to a facility in Texas.
Stakeholders involved in the current Housatonic mediation include the EPA, GE, the city of Pittsfield, the Rest of River Municipal Committee representing Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the state of Connecticut, the Housatonic River Initiative, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT), Massachusetts Audubon and Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey Cook.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, an opponent of local PCB waste dumping, declined to participate.
The EPA Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council has 37 members, including GE (no longer attending meetings), the EPA, representatives from cities and towns along the river, multiple environmental groups, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and additional stakeholders.
It was formed in 1998 to address PCB contamination at the GE Pittsfield site and the rest of the river and to involve the community in plans for the cleanup in Pittsfield as well as downstream. According to the EPA, the group's stated purpose is to foster the exchange of information among federal and state agencies, GE and communities involved in or affected by the cleanup.
Eagle investigations editor Larry Parnass contributed to this report.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.