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Residents, officials in Berkshire County question GE's Housatonic River cleanup proposals

A sign on the Housatonic River in Lee, Massachusetts, advises against eating fish, frogs, turtles and ducks because they are contaminated with PCBs. The advisory is from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A sign on the Housatonic River in Lee, Massachusetts, advises against eating fish, frogs, turtles and ducks because they are contaminated with PCBs. The advisory is from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Members of the public and local Berkshire officials fired questions at staff members of the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday night at a meeting about the 13-year PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River.

The Citizens Coordinating Council meeting was held in Lee, Massachusetts, where a PCB disposal site is planned as part of the cleanup. The site will contain soil and sediment from the river with lower concentrations of PCBs. Waste with higher concentrations will be shipped to regulated facilities out of state.

The questions ranged from why the polluter, General Electric, does not attend these meetings — G.E. has two seats on the Council — to whether the EPA had found Native burial grounds on the cleanup site, to whether the EPA and G.E. are legally required to follow local bylaws.

Several people criticized GE's transportation plan which emphasizes trucks over rail for moving toxic waste. Charles Kenny chairs the Tri Town Board of Health, which serves Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.

Kenny said if rail was used to take the waste with high concentrations of PCBs out of Berkshire County, "the truckload[s] going through the town of Lee would be minimized considerably."

Kenny said to the staff from the EPA that the final permit governing the cleanup calls for GE to "examine the measures that maximize off site transport by rail. If you want everybody to trust you, make them do that or get somebody else who will," he said.

"You're absolutely right about the language in the permit that says we should maximize to the extent practical, rail transport," Anni Loughlin of the EPA responded. "We are going to require them to do more."

The EPA said in an email, "GE's evaluation of rail usage is inadequate and requires greater evaluation."

State Sen. Paul Mark, D- Pittsfield and State Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, weighed in before the meeting, criticizing G.E.'s plan for transporting toxic waste. They wrote the EPA on Wednesday that rail would be safer with less traffic, emissions and noise.

"The emphasis on truck transportation," they wrote, "appears to be based on one factor alone, the ability of General Electric to reduce costs to cleanup a region it polluted and largely abandoned."

A GE spokesperson said, “GE is actively evaluating the use of rail transportation to ship sediment and soils removed from the Housatonic River to appropriate final disposal locations."

The public has until Feb. 1 to submit comments on the transportation plan. The EPA said it anticipates responding to G.E.'s plan by the end of February and will require a revised plan.

During the meeting Josh Bloom, a member of the Citizens Coordinating Council, said G.E.'s proposed Quality of Life Compliance Plan would allow noise levels that are louder than what the town allows.

"They are far exceeding the regulations for our local town. I want to find out if G.E. can simply violate our town bylaws and get away with it, or if the Quality of Life plan needs to be adapted to be compliant with the town of Lee's noise regulations," Bloom asked.

John Kilborn, a lawyer with the EPA, said according to the law, Superfund cleanups do not have to comply with local regulations.

"However, we are going to be considering all comments and a local regulation is something that we would consider." he said. "It's something we'll evaluate."

The public has until March 29 to comment on G.E.'s Quality of Life Compliance Plan. Besides noise, it looks at how the cleanup will impact odor, lighting and recreation.

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.