Hi everyone, this is Bill Shein from the Berkshire Argus.
When it comes to discussion of the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that General Electric dumped in and near the Housatonic River for 40 years, reviewing the decades-long back-and-forth between the company, federal and state regulators, environmental activists, residents, and armies of lawyers can quickly become complicated. The details get technically complex and the nearly half-century public record can be overwhelming.
Even basic terminology can be confusing. For example, when news headlines refer to “the Housatonic River clean-up,” some assume that the GE-funded and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved remediation work will remove all PCB contamination and return the river to a safe, healthy state.
But as Bob Jones, chair of the Select Board in the Town of Lee, Massachusetts, explains in this podcast conversation, that’s not the case. The “Rest of River” cleanup agreement approved in 2020 by the Select Boards of Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield will not remove all of the PCBs.
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The details were negotiated during nonpublic executive sessions of a Rest of River Municipal Committee made up of representatives from the affected communities and facilitated by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. That plan includes disposal of some PCB-laden river sediment at a new 20-acre dump site in Lee. Called the Upland Disposal Facility, it will be constructed in a former quarry about 1,000 feet from the river. And, as environmentalists and Lee residents have noted, only 15 feet above the water table and directly above a freshwater aquifer.
A Berkshire County dump is a substantial change from EPA’s original 2016 permit for the project which would have sent all PCB waste removed from the river to licensed, out-of-state disposal facilities. That had long been a top priority of the Rest of River Committee, regularly reflected in minutes of its meetings. But General Electric challenged EPA’s approved plan, successfully arguing that local storage of what it says will only be low-level PCB waste is safe, appropriate, and, with far less trucking required, more climate-friendly. As a result of a mediation process involving Pittsfield, the five rest-of-river towns and other affected parties, the 2020 settlement agreement was reached and incorporated into a cleanup permit issued by EPA.
Jones argues that perhaps as little as 30 percent of the contamination that makes the river and surrounding area unhealthy for people and wildlife will be removed. As a result, he told me, “You and I will never eat fish out of the Housatonic River.”
After accounting for $63 million paid by GE to Pittsfield and the five towns -- including $25 million each to Lee and Lenox -- and additional spending to remove more river sediment than proposed in 2016, the 2020 agreement will cost GE around $550 million, an estimated $60 million less than the 2016 plan, according to EPA documents.
As you’ll hear in this episode, Jones believes the process that led to a PCB dump in Lee was flawed, too secretive, and undemocratic. All three members of the Lee Select Board who voted to approve the plan in 2020 have since been replaced. Pointing to the environmental and human-health impacts of PCB contamination, Jones says the decision to locate a dump in a working-class community rather than in nearby tourist havens is “a perfect case of environmental injustice.” He and others are skeptical that the Upland Disposal Facility’s protective liners and monitoring features will be sufficient to prevent eventual leaks. They also reject EPA’s contention that new bioremediation technologies that can break down PCBs in the environment are not appropriate for this project at this time.
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Several times during our conversation Jones warned residents of downstream communities that, in his view, neither the dump in Lee nor the amount of contamination removed from the river will protect them, especially as climate change produces more intense storms that are likely to cause widespread river flooding. He believes that residents of the other towns don’t know enough of the details, including plans for thousands of truck trips carrying PCB-laden sediment through their communities to the new dump. But most of all, he’s concerned about the health and well-being of his constituents and the economic impact of locating a PCB landfill in his town.
This podcast episode is part of an upcoming Berkshire Argus reporting project that will examine the past, present, and future of the Housatonic River. The series will present a range of views on a Rest of River clean-up plan that Jones calls “inadequate” and a “charade,” but which others say is the best-possible outcome given the financial resources of a politically well-connected multinational corporation like General Electric. Former State Senator Adam Hinds, who represented the Berkshires from 2017 until last September, made that very argument in February 2020. He said, “Our laws, regulations and precedent allow for less than a full cleanup, and as a result, the municipalities were threatened with endless litigation they could not afford in pursuit of an outcome they did not know they could win.” Hinds said it was regrettable, but the agreement was “the best the towns could expect, given the alternatives.”
My conversation with Jones was recorded on July 13, a couple of weeks before a federal appeals court rejected arguments made by two local environmental groups that EPA’s decision-making was flawed. Our discussion runs for about 40 minutes.
For more information:
Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee (Documents, Agendas, Minutes)
Berkshire Eagle: Federal appeals court rejects challenge to cleanup plan
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