Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative explains his groups opposition to the recently announced settlement between the EPA, General Electric and Rest of River Municipal Committee at the the Lenox Community Center Tuesday night. Photo: Terry Cowgill

PCB removal pact sparks anger and dismay at EPA, towns

Opponents of the recent settlement between General Electric, the Environmental Protection Agency and five South County towns to clean up PCBs in the Housatonic River reveal plans to stop a planned PCB landfill in Lee.

Lenox — Opponents of the recent settlement between General Electric, the Environmental Protection Agency and five South County towns to clean up PCBs in the Housatonic River say their plans to stop a planned PCB landfill in Lee include investigation of possible violations of the state Open Meetings Law.

About 100 people packed the Lenox Community Center Tuesday night to ask questions and to hear a presentation from Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative, a group that has been battling the parties for at least 10 years.

The HRI has held a series of meetings in the wake of the recently announced settlement between GE, the EPA and the towns to remove polychlorinated biphenyls, which GE dumped legally into the river from its sprawling Pittsfield plant until the practice was banned in 1979. Another informational meeting is planned for tonight in Pittsfield. Representatives from the EPA will be present.

“We’ve been holding meetings … to sort of bring you a different story about the river than what you are hearing from the people who negotiated the settlements,” Gray said.

“We believe very strongly that this issue of the dump should have been brought to the towns as a town vote.” Gray explained. “We just don’t like the process that has happened. We think it was done behind a lot of our backs.”

See video below of the Housatonic River Initiative’s information session Tuesday evening at the Lenox Community Center:

The parties announced the agreement Feb. 10 at the Berkshire Scenic Railroad in Lenox Dale. See the video below courtesy Community Television For The Southern Berkshires:

After years of negotiations, the EPA and GE reached an agreement 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.

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

The company was permitted by the EPA to dump PCBs dredged earlier from a 2-mile stretch of the Pittsfield section of the river into an abandoned field known as “Hill 78,” adjacent to Allendale Elementary School in Pittsfield. The remainder of the project, to the Connecticut border and beyond, has been dubbed “Rest of River.”

As part of the settlement (click here to read the EPA’s fact sheet), the five towns (plus Pittsfield) will receive what the EPA calls a “substantial economic development package” of $63 million in compensation for the impacts of the agreement, including significant truck traffic.

GE will pay a total of $55 million to the five towns. Lee and Lenox will receive $25 million apiece. Great Barrington, Sheffield and Stockbridge will be paid $1.5 million each. Pittsfield will receive $8 million, along with renewed efforts by GE to address blight in and near its former Pittsfield plant.

The EPA provided a list of backers of the settlement that included statements of support from town officials, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, GE and Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, whose state has been less affected by the PCB contamination but which nonetheless hosts the lion’s share of the Housatonic River before it empties into Long Island Sound.

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 those who attended Tuesday night’s session, 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 in Pittsfield.

Rising Pond in Housatonic. At right was the land proposed for a PCB landfill, now abandoned in favor of the recently announced agreement that will put the waste in Lee.. Photo: David Scribner

Gray spent a lot of time explaining the history and qualities of PCBs, along with GE’s history of involvement with the substance. Click here for a comprehensive summary on HRI’s website.

Gray said lawyers are examining the settlement for HRI. One option is an expensive appeal in federal court. Gray also indicated that open meeting laws may have been violated because individual boards of selectmen did not discuss the settlement or announce it in open session.

But many members of the audience were visibly angry that the settlement included a disposal facility in Berkshire County. Some accused the selectmen who signed the settlement of “selling out.”

See video below of the Feb. 20 information session held by the EPA at Monument Mountain Regional High School courtesy CTSB:

The only selectboard member in attendance at last night’s meeting was Ed Abrahams of Great Barrington. Abrahams did not speak at the meeting because he simply wanted to listen. He did, however, agree to a follow-up interview with The Edge.

Abrahams said he shares the anger and frustration expressed by members of the audience. He wishes the towns could, on their own terms, simply order GE to clean up the mess that the company alone is responsible for.

“It’s infuriating that GE did this,” Abrahams said. “On the other hand, GE has rights, too. They took the EPA to court and they were successful.”

Abrahams is convinced that the selectboards did not violate the open meeting law because proposed or pending litigation is a justifiable cause for entering into executive session.

“This wasn’t a legislative process,” Abrahams explained. “GE took the EPA to court and there was a mediated settlement.”

Members of the audience, numbering almost 100, listened intently and asked questions during the session Tuesday night at Lenox Community Center. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Abrahams said he was not at liberty to say how any one member of the selectboard voted on the agreement, but did say the board approved it by a clear majority. Eventually, he hopes the board makes public the minutes from the executive sessions.

But essentially, the town agreed to the settlement because the alternative could have been much worse. There could easily be $1 million more in legal fees with an outcome closer to what GE wanted, with all the waste dumped at three sites in Berkshire County, including Great Barrington, Abrahams said. The new agreement also calls for removal of more contaminated sediment from the river than previously required by the EPA’s 2016 cleanup plan that was challenged by GE.

The EPA says GE has committed to starting the process as soon as possible. The company plans to begin engineering and designing studies immediately. The project could take 10 years and could include 50,000 truck trips on the roads of Lenox and Lee. The total cost to GE is estimated at more than half a billion dollars.