Public can weigh in on disputed Housatonic River cleanup plan

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After vowing to hear public views on the Housatonic River cleanup, federal environmental officials have a date, but not a place.

A spokeswoman with the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it will convene a session at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 3. The location will be identified within days, said Kelsey Dumville of the EPA's public affairs office in Boston.

Tim Conway, the EPA's lead lawyer on the Rest of River project, told members of the Citizens Coordinating Council on Oct. 24 the agency would soon offer a briefing on the mediation underway behind closed doors.

In those talks, led by a Washington lawyer, disputing parties are exploring whether they can come to agreement on how polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, discharged by the General Electric Co. should be removed from stretches of the river in Pittsfield and five towns to the south. PCBs, which were used to make electrical transformers until the substance was banned in 1979, are listed as a probable carcinogen.

Dumville said that in addition to hearing about the status of mediation, people will have a chance to talk back.

"Members of the public will also be given the opportunity to inform EPA on what is most important to them and what would be an ideal cleanup," she said in a statement.

Parties to the mediation include GE, the EPA, communities touched by the river, environmental groups and the state of Connecticut. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is not participating.

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Where to dump PCBs removed from the river is a key issue in the talks.

Though the EPA directs GE to ship tainted sediment to sites outside Massachusetts, the company has pressed for local disposal, enabling it to save an estimated $250 million.

The full cost of the environmental work outlined by the EPA in a 2016 decision is pegged at $613 million for work over more than a dozen years.

Two years since the EPA's decision, none of the essential cleanup work has begun, after GE fought the EPA's plan in the nation's top environmental court.

While the Environmental Appeals Board upheld most of the EPA's directives, it asked the agency to take a fresh look at where PCBs can be dumped. That issue is expected to be aired when residents along the river get their chance to comment early next month.

Jim Murphy, an EPA spokesman in Boston, said the agency is letting the mediation attempt progress before deciding the disposal question.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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