Rene Wood: More committed to cleanup plan

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SHEFFIELD — It's been a month since the Rest of the Housatonic River Settlement Agreement was announced. That announcement, three public information sessions and the time to think about it all has been the most surreal period of my life.     

The Settlement Agreement was announced, explained and welcomed by a who's-who of local and state elected officials. Were we all wrong to welcome it as a breakthrough in a multi-decade impasse of getting no more than just the first two miles of the river cleaned up? Were we all in GE's pocket when announcing more cleanup, more PCBs being removed, less opportunity for their reentry, and disposal arrangements requiring GE to take a minimum of 100,000 cubic yards of the worst PCB contamination out-of-state? Did we all sell-out when we agreed to a disposal site for low level PCB materials in a specially designed landfill at Lane Construction? Should we have put our heads in the sand and ignored the real possibility that all the PCB-contaminated materials would be disposed of in up to three GE-identified South County landfills and let the courts, knowing absolutely nothing about Berkshire County, make this crucial decision?

Were we really so stupid and incompetent as to think when GE said it would not negotiate taking all of the PCB waste out of state that it really didn't meant it? Was the compensation the municipalities accepted in the form of land for economic development, getting GE to end neighborhood blight, making sure taxpayers wouldn't pay post-clean up road and infrastructure costs, and $63.5 million the same as the 30 pieces of silver Judas Iscariot took when he betrayed Jesus Christ?

These are a sampling of the statements, shouts and signs at the information sessions and in letters to the editor. The disruptions, talking over people and just plain yelling at each session not only prevented questions from being answered, but kept those who actually came seeking information on the cleanup from getting it.

CLEANING A TOXIC RIVER

Despite all of this, I want to thank everyone who came to a public information session. Emotions were high and many statements were full of anguish, disbelief and anger. Questions couldn't always be completely answered, as all designs haven't started yet; many technical issues need to be finalized. Questions asked, not accusations shouted, were excellent; people wanted information. Suggestions were made to strengthen the upcoming draft permit and many committed to stay involved as the process goes forward.

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Listening carefully to every comment, taunt and shout, I became more committed to cleaning up the river. I heard story after story of cancer, in many cases multi-generational cancer, from people who have lived by the open, toxic, hazardous PCB dump that is the Housatonic River. I appreciate those of you who spoke with me, as well as many who did not make a session but shared positive opinions of gains achieved in the agreement.

Some people will never agree with the EPA, and it's their right not to. Even in Berkshire County, we live in a time when facts have become the personal domain of many and in some cases appear to be tailored to fit personal narratives.

So, where are we in this river cleanup? GE has begun design/engineering work per the 2016 permit to avoid another multi-year delay. The Settlement Agreement has been signed and requires no additional signatures. Each Rest of River town's Select Board had the legal authority to sign the agreement as the executive authority for their respective town. Town votes are not required; any citizen petition passed at an annual town meeting is advisory only. The terms of the agreement are not severable or modifiable other than with the consent of the affected parties.

EPA hopes to have the draft permit released around Memorial Day containing the 2016 permit sections not changed by the Settlement Agreement and the provisions of the agreement. EPA will hold public input sessions and have a public comment period. All parties who signed the agreement will make sure the draft permit conforms substantially to the agreement. EPA will post answers to public comments on its website, as legally required. Late 2020 or early 2021, EPA expects to release the new permit, which will govern the Rest of the River cleanup. No additional signatures will be required. After it is issued, once again all parties who signed the agreement will make sure the new permit conforms substantially to the agreement. If it doesn't, litigation will be discussed. Others may decide to sue.

If a suit is filed, it will go to the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), where three judges will once again decide whether to rule in favor of EPA or those who sue. However the EAB rules, either side can appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

The best outcome of this last month is more people becoming aware of the cleanup and committing to stay involved. I hope they will and everyone will become informed on what's really in the Settlement Agreement by taking the time to read it, rather than relying on social media or others' opinions.

Rene Wood is Sheffield's six-year representative to the Housatonic Rest of River Committee and chairwoman of the Sheffield Select Board.


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