More than 250 people attended a May 2016 protest in Housatonic against a proposed PCB dump site. Photo: Heather Bellow

EPA announces final revised permit for GE clean-up of the Housatonic, as Lee group threatens lawsuit

The recently announced settlement was seen as a compromise but many local residents, including the Housatonic River Initiative, were still appalled that a second PCB disposal site was going to be built in Berkshire County, in addition to the existing site at Hill 78 that contains much of the contaminated sediment already dredged from the river upstream in Pittsfield.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week issued a revised final permit for the Rest of River cleanup plan of the Housatonic River. But on the key sticking point of locating a toxic waste dump in Lee, the agency held firm.

General Electric, which had dumped polychlorinated biphenyls legally into the river from its sprawling Pittsfield plant until the practice was banned in 1979, had reached an agreement earlier this year to clean up the river with the five towns affected by the pollution downstream from the plant: Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield — known collectively as the Rest of River Municipal Committee.

Protesters make their feelings known March 8, during an anti-PCB dump demonstration near the Mass Pike Exit 2 off-ramp in Lee. Photo courtesy No PCB Dumps Action Group

In October 2016, the EPA issued a plan on how best to clean up the rest of the river. It was appealed by five parties, including GE, in part because of the plan’s insistence on shipping all waste out of state at great expense to GE.

The recently announced settlement was seen as a compromise but many local residents, including the Housatonic River Initiative, were still appalled that a second PCB disposal site was going to be built in Berkshire County, in addition to the existing site at Hill 78 that contains much of the contaminated sediment already dredged from the river upstream in Pittsfield.

In a news release announcing the development, the EPA said the revised final permit (click here to read the text of the entire modification) updates the agency’s 2016 cleanup plan for the river, its floodplains and other surrounding areas. The EPA insists the remedy, as outlined in the permit, “is protective of human health and the environment and will result in more contaminated sediment removed from the river and surrounding areas than EPA’s previous 2016 decision.”

The EPA added that the cleanup plan “has specific provisions to expedite cleanup, significantly enhance the PCB removal in the cleanup, and provide for safe, effective disposal of the excavated materials.”

“EPA is very proud of the hard work and commitment of all stakeholders to achieve a cleaned up Housatonic River that will remain a scenic and recreational foundation in Berkshire County and Connecticut for generations to come. This cleanup plan will protect public health and restore a cleaner, healthier and more robust ecological community in and near the river,” EPA New England regional administrator Dennis Deziel said in a statement.

The location of the planned Upland Disposal Facility for PCBs in Lee. Image courtesy EPA

The worst of the contaminants (more than 50 parts per million of PCB) will be shipped to a federally licensed out-of-state disposal site. The lower-level contaminants — some 80 to 90% of the material — will be deposited in a lined “state-of-the-art” landfill in Lee, known as the Upland Disposal Facility, adjacent to the Lane Gravel Pit property off Woodland Road at the Lee-Lenox town line. GE had proposed using two other additional dump sites, including one at Rising Pond in the village of Housatonic in the town of Great Barrington. Those will not be utilized under the new agreement.

The agency’s decision to site a PCB landfill in Lee sparked protests. Click here and here to read letters to the editor of The Edge objecting to the settlement. The issue also played a role in the 2019 election for the Lee Board of Selectmen, which had agreed to the proposal.

Incumbent board Chair Tom Wickham was defeated in his bid for reelection by Sean Regnier, who had opposed the deal. Meanwhile, a protest against the proposed Rising Pond dump attracted 250 people to the village of Housatonic.

See Edgecast video report by Ben Hillman on the May 7, 2016, march against General Electric’s proposal to create a toxic PCB waste dump in the village of Housatonic, along the banks of the Housatonic River at Rising Pond:

The Rest of River cleanup is estimated to cost $576 million, and will take approximately two to three years for initial design activities, and 13 years for implementation. The revised final permit becomes effective Feb. 3, 2021.

Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative explains his group’s opposition to the settlement between the EPA, General Electric and Rest of River Municipal Committee at the the Lenox Community Center March 4. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In a brief interview, Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative said the No PCB Dumps Action Group is considering legal action.

“We’re very unhappy about it and are challenging everything,” Gray said. The HRI filed suit several months ago against the EPA in Boston and the No PCB Dumps Action Group, formed in Lee after the agreement on the dump was signed, is considering a lawsuit against the board of selectmen.

Gray said the group believes the board violated state open meeting laws by negotiating and approving the EPA agreement in executive session and may have exceeded its authority because the matter never came before the members of the Lee Town Meeting Representatives, which is the representative town meeting form of government that functions as the official legislative and budgetary body of the town.

“Our selectmen are totally out of control,” Gray continued. “The selectmen said at a meeting last week that they don’t have to listen to town representatives. The selectmen never had the authority to do it … They went ahead on their own.”

Stay tuned.