Environmental groups say Housatonic River cleanup plan inadequate

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff



LENOX -- Leading local environmental groups Tuesday night called for a more aggressive cleanup plan for the Housatonic River from southern Pittsfield into Connecticut.

The Housatonic River Initiative, Housatonic Valley Association and the Citizens for PCB Removal were among the organizations who sharply criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its proposed Rest of River remediation.

They believe it falls far short of the need to forever protect wildlife and humans from a suspected carcinogenic chemical used for decades by General Electric.

"The proposal leaves behind 75 percent of the PCBs -- it doesn't seem like a very good remediation plan," said HVA Berkshire Director Dennis Regan.

"If you had a cancer to remove, you wouldn't remove 25 percent and leave 75 percent behind," added Barbara Cianfarini of Citizens for PCB Removal.

The EPA remediation calls for capping, rather than dredging, parts of the river bed and leaving undisturbed areas within the Housatonic floodplain with PCB levels less than 50 parts per million.

The criticism came during a 90-minute official EPA public hearing at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. About 15 of the 60 people attending spoke to the agency's strategy for GE to remove or encapsulate PCBs in and around a 125-mile stretch of the Housatonic. The public comment period wraps up Oct. 27, with written remarks being accepted at r1Housatonic@epa.gov.

The EPA Rest of the River plan calls on GE to spend an estimated $619 million to dredge, excavate and remove the likely cancer-causing chemicals from riverbed sediment as well as the flood plain in designated zones.

Furthermore, GE would cap "hot spot" areas for 10.5 miles from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox Dale. The plan would remove 89 to 92 percent of PCBs annually from the most contaminated areas, such as Woods Pond.

"The plan dictates what GE has to do, but not how to do it," said Dean Tagliferro, EPA's Rest of River project manager.

The "how to do it" is what worries many Pittsfield residents living within the initial 5 miles of the cleanup.

Jeffrey Cook, who represents the Ward 4 River Watch group, believes the access roads, staging areas and other aspects of PCB dredging will do more harm than good to the impacted area.

"If we had a vacuum up above sucking up all the PCBs, that would be cool," he said.

However the largest landowner along the Housatonic in Berkshire County, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, find the clean-up "responsibly" addresses public health while protecting the environment.

"It's been a difficult balancing act .. and [the plan] has our full support," said MassWildlife board member, Joseph Larson.

GE released PCBs into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield transformer plant from 1932 until the U.S. government banned the substance in 1977. GE has already spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning up the first 1.5 miles of the river in Pittsfield and Silver Lake, once the city's most polluted bodies of water, now a recreational area for boating and catch-and-release fishing.

To reach Dick Lindsay:  rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com   or (413) 496-6233.

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