Top Stories of 2018: No. 4: New player in hunt for elusive Housatonic River cleanup accord
Like the Housatonic River itself, efforts to clean it up — sluggish as geologic time — take twists and turns.
This year brought a surprise meander: a kind of Hail Mary attempt by an outside mediator to broker an agreement on how to deal with toxins that the General Electric Co. spewed into the river for half a century.
That mediator, John G. Bickerman, sized up the challenge once before and walked away.
Hope might not spring eternal, the saying goes, but it can be stubborn. The Washington, D.C., lawyer was back in the Berkshires this year, shuttling among parties that disagree over how to move ahead with the Rest of River removal of polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs — from river soils and sediments.
To be sure, Bickerman's effort could founder, becoming in time a footnote to the Environmental Protection Agency's long effort to deal with GE's environmental degradation. He would probably not be surprised. When asked to try a similar effort a few years back, Bickerman decided the will wasn't there.
But 2018 will go down as a year the company and the agency tried, perhaps for the last time, to break an impasse over terms of the $613 million cleanup the EPA set in October 2016 —and GE appealed the next month.
On Dec. 3, Bickerman stood before a crowd in a Lenox school auditorium, probably the highest-paid emcee in Berkshire County history. "I recognize that this issue has been going on a long time and that there are a lot of strong feelings here," he said.
Within minutes that night, Bickerman called out the elephant in the room. How many people in the auditorium, he asked, think PCBs removed during an eventual cleanup should not be dumped in the county?
Bickerman's eyes darted around, scanning the crowd of about 200. Verdict delivered. Nine of 10 people had raised their hands.
No one outside the mediation knows the full range of issues being discussed. But finding agreement on that single question of where to dump PCBs is likely to be the key to the mediation's success. GE's preference for local dump sites, a change from the order that the EPA laid out in October 2016, is being explored in the mediation.
Having to ship PCB-laden soil and sediment out of state represents about $250 million of the Rest of River cleanup's cost. The agency estimates that sections of the river not yet addressed contain 55 tons to 289 tons of PCBs. The substance, banned in 1979, is a probable human carcinogen.
EPA officials say that if Bickerman's mediation comes up with a different approach than what has been outlined so far, the public will have another chance to comment.
For now, though, the talks take place behind closed doors, with the parties compelled not to disclose any progress — or lack of it. The cost is covered by GE and the agency.
Along with those big players, nine groups joined the mediation, including state and local governments, environmental groups and a Pittsfield resident. Pittsfield is aboard, as are the five communities known as the Rest of River Municipal Committee (Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge), the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, the Housatonic River Initiative, Massachusetts Audubon, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey Cook.
If Bickerman's effort bottoms out, and GE remains determined to avoid out-of-state disposal costs for PCBs, the cleanup clock will have to be wound up all over again as the fight returns to the courts.
The EPA would return to a procedural question it put on hold this summer. After GE appealed the cleanup plan in November 2016, its objections went before the Environmental Appeals Board in June 2017. Last Jan. 26, that court upheld most of the EPA's plan, but asked the agency to provide more support for its demand that PCBs be shipped to licensed disposal sites outside Massachusetts.
It has been 18 years since GE and the federal government set basic terms under which the company must deal with its environmental legacy in Berkshire County, and 21 years since properties that GE's transformer business began polluting in 1932 were designated a Superfund site.
That clock counts years, not just hours. Already, the Rest of River plan outlined by the EPA would take 13 years to complete. The agency says work would begin two to three years "after all appeals are resolved."
Nothing that happened in 2018 offered any clarity on those last five words when it comes to the waterway Mohicans were said to call the "river of the mountain place."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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