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EPA formally pushes GE to reconsider rail, more hydraulic pumping in remediation plan’s transportation proposal

The response cites rail-siding locations and prohibits truck transport on some town roads.

Housatonic Rest of River — In a scathing June 4 letter to General Electric Company (GE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disapproved of the portion of the conglomerate’s transportation plan that it stated inadequately evaluated rail as a mode of moving toxic materials from the Housatonic River in accordance with a 2020 permit to remediate the waterway’s Rest of River section. GE now has until October 15 to come up with a new proposal that fully evaluates “the feasibility and appropriateness of using rail” for the project, incorporating information gleamed from a future public meeting and community input on the issue. The June 4 letter can be found here.

Rail evaluation

According to the 2020 agreement negotiated following decades of GE depositing the now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Housatonic River from its Pittsfield plant, the most toxic products from the waterway are to be taken out of the area while the lower-level contaminated materials are transported to an Upland Disposal Facility (UDF), or landfill, that will be built in Lee. The Rest of River plan stretches from the east and west confluence of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield to Connecticut.

The EPA’s letter cites the community input presented since the October 31 release of the initial transportation plan, with residents and officials clamoring for a “robust evaluation” of rail as a transport method. “The Plan’s evaluation of rail was deficient in many respects, especially for transport to the UDF,” the document states. “It was limited to a preliminary evaluation of existing and former rail sidings, a very brief evaluation of options on or adjacent to the UDF, and no identification of potential new rail sidings.”

This week’s document includes a push for GE to evaluate rail transportation from Pittsfield to Great Barrington’s Rising Pond, within the first reaches of the project. Rail use discussions that followed the transportation plan’s release focused on the availability of rail sidings; that is, areas for loading and unloading the rail cars from the track’s route. GE’s plan reflected the materials would be mostly moved by trucks and, to a lesser extent, via hydraulic measures. In its proposal, GE cited the lack of existing usable railroad siding as the predominant reason the mode wasn’t selected, despite being touted by residents and officials as a safer method of transportation.

In its letter, the EPA is now requiring GE to evaluate possible rail-siding locations: by the Pittsfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, near Woods Pond in Lee, and adjacent to Rising Pond. Those specified locations include one site in Reach 5A, Willow Creek in Lenox, at or abutting the UDF in Lee, Columbia Mill, Willow Mill, and Rising Pond. If Willow Creek Road is workable but a site near the UDF is not, however, GE can look at using trucks routed from Willow Creek to the UDF, but that route must “minimize traffic by residential properties,” with the possibility of installing a temporary bridge near the Woods Pond pedestrian bridge, the EPA stated.

“The Revised Plan shall also include a discussion as to why the option to construct a rail siding east of the main line track at the Berkshire Scenic Rail Yard on Willow Creek Road is not included in the evaluation,” the document stated.

GE is being asked by the EPA to focus its route on internal roads and river crossings “to minimize traffic on public roads”; to detail how the material will be transported from the dredging site to the rail sidings; and to provide an estimated timeline for rail upgrades in addition to the reconstruction of Roaring Brook Road that is needed to handle truck loads.

Hydraulic-pumping evaluation

The remainder of the proposed plan that didn’t concern rail was “conditionally approved” by the EPA except for some specifics related to hydraulic pumping, with GE now being asked to evaluate hydraulic transport in areas, or reaches, it hadn’t done previously. The original transportation plan provided pumping was feasible “in at least Woods Pond and potentially from other locations,” eliminating at least 50,000 truck trips.

In its upcoming document, GE will need to evaluate and compare the “community impacts” of rail, trucking, and hydraulic pumping, including the possibility of injuries or fatalities as well as the emission of greenhouse gases, or environmental effects. A “robust” evaluation of hydraulic transport is also being requested. This pushback is a nod to the Tri-Town Board of Health—that oversees Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge—with its members, including Chair Dr. Charles Kenny, seeking implementation of what they deemed as the safer transportation methods of rail and hydraulic pumping over trucks.

Prohibited transport roads

Other community input centered around the safety of the truck routes through town roads. The June 4 document notes that, for off-site transportation, trucking can’t be avoided even if rail is used, and advises the GE plan incorporate using U.S. Route 7 south to Route 102 East to I-90, prohibiting the use of Route 183 through Lenox, Route 102 west through West Stockbridge, and U.S. Route 20 through Lee, with the latter roadway to be used only as an alternate route. However, these prohibited roads can be used temporarily in the event of road closures or emergency situations with the approval of the EPA.

For UDF transport, the EPA is prohibiting the use of Routes 183 through the center of Lenox, with Route 7 North to Walker Street a less disruptive trek if hydraulic pumping can’t be implemented. The agency is directing GE to research a second access road to the UDF from the westerly part of Willow Hill from Mill Street to avoid passing any homes or the October Mountain campground entrance.

Additionally, the letter states that GE didn’t demonstrate why its current plan involved shipping an estimated 10 percent of the dredged materials off site, with the EPA finding that that figure “significantly overestimates” the amount of material needing to go off site from Reach 7 that is a later area to be remediated. Most, if not all, that material will likely now be deposited in the UDF, according to the agency.

Request for comment from GE representatives was not returned by press time.

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