Many question EPA's Housatonic River cleanup plan at public forum
Friday, June 20, 2014
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff / 06/19/2014
LENOX -- The impact on homeowners and effectiveness of the planned cleanup for the Housatonic River from southern Pittsfield into Connecticut highlighted the initial public discussion of the recently released federal proposal.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials Wednesday night outlined details of the preliminary Rest of River remediation to about 150 residents, environmentalists and local government officials gathered at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.
Unveiled online two weeks ago, the EPA believes a combination of dredging, capping and natural recovery will help remove or contain a large majority of the PCBs General Electric dumped in the Housatonic over a 45-year-period.
The proposal will go through an extensive review process, which will take months, and result in the final plan, according to EPA officials.
"This is by no means the final cleanup plan," said the EPA's Dean Tagliaferro, project manager for Rest of River.
Nevertheless, residents of Pittsfield's Ward 4, where the cleanup would begin, worry about the expected tens of thousands of truck trips hauling away the PCB-contaminated sediment through their neighborhoods.
Jeffrey Cook called the potential truck traffic impact "scary," a sentiment shared by Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi.
"We're very concerned about the tranquility of the area being destroyed for a number of years," the mayor said.
Barbara Cianfarini, of Citizens for PCB Removal, replied residents will survive the disruption, just as her family did when GE cleanup up the initial two miles of the Housatonic more than a decade ago.
"It is not as bad as you think it will be," she said. Tagliaferro noted GE is responsible for any road, personal property and other damage caused by the cleanup.
The EPA Rest of 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 EPA has said it would also be open to new remediation technologies -- if proven viable -- as part of the final cleanup plan, or as GE is removing or capping the PCBs.
Several speakers during the nearly three-hour meeting questioned whether the plan will work.
"How do we know capping will be effective?" asked Patty Spector.
EPA officials said GE will monitor the caps closely and will fix any problems that arise.
While the EPA expects one million cubic yards of sediment to be removed, some residents and environmental groups feel that's not enough.
The Housatonic River Initiative, Housatonic Valley Association and Berkshire Environmental Action Team are among the local river watchdog groups who have said the plan doesn't go far enough to eradicate PCBs from in and around the Housatonic.
For the past year, EPA and GE officials held at times intense discussions to determine what cleanup plan would please both the corporate giant and benefit the environment and communities along the river.
While GE has stated it couldn't reach an agreement with the EPA on all aspects of the plan, agency officials believe their differences can be resolved without litigation.
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.