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Citizens concerned about public health, environmental risks at proposed PCB dump in Lee

A lawn sign in Lee, Massachusetts, designed by Reed Anderson of Great Barrington, calls for no local dumps for PCB waste from General Electric.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A lawn sign in Lee, Massachusetts, designed by Reed Anderson of Great Barrington, calls for no local dumps for PCB waste from General Electric.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and General Electric are taking steps to design a facility to dispose of PCBs in Lee, Massachusetts. It's part of the cleanup of the Housatonic River. Members of the public have expressed concerns about health and environmental risks.

At a meeting of the Citizen's Coordinating Council on Tuesday, the EPA presented sampling data showing a 99% reduction in PCBs in the sediment of the first two miles of the river south of GE's former plant, since it was cleaned up years ago.

But the focus of the meeting was on cleanup of the rest of the river — and on two reports recently submitted by GE to the EPA. One is a pre-design investigation of the GE property. The other is a conceptual design plan of the PCB disposal project.

Some at the meeting were concerned about the safety of the facility. Monica Ryan, of Lee, asked if the double liner of the proposed dump could leak.

"At what point in the planning process do they say the plan can go ahead without that assurance that this will not leak — that there's a guarantee?" Ryan asked. "My concern is that they still don't have it."

Rich Fisher, of the EPA, said the liner will adhere to the performance standards in the agency's cleanup permit.

Lee resident Clare Lahey said she is concerned about erosion and the impact on a vernal pool.

"It seems to me they are recognizing how dangerous this particular hill is with its sandy nature," Lahey said. "And they recognize that there's vernal pools there and that they will mitigate if there are soils that inadvertently slide down into these vernal pools. And that's so scary."

Dean Tagliaferro, of the EPA, said the vernal pool is not in the part of the property where the disposal facility will be constructed.

"That's not to say it's not very important, but there may be some areas that could be completely avoided," he said.

The EPA is accepting public comment on GE's plans to investigate and design the disposal facility until mid-February.

The Housatonic River Initiative and Housatonic Environmental Action League have filed an appeal of the EPA's cleanup plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.