The Housatonic River in Glendale. Photo by David Scribner.

PETER MOST: Let the river flow

Despite misgivings, I support the Rest of River Cleanup Plan and believe it is time for Lee to lay down its swords (attorneys). I conclude—and there is no polite way to say this—that it is time for Lee to throw in the towel.

Two farmers standing in a field watch as a hare outruns a fox. One notes surprise that the hare is winning the race, as he believes foxes are naturally faster. The other farmer observes that while that is generally true, here the fox was merely running for its dinner, while the hare was running for its life.

As regards the proposal to place PCB-contaminated sediment in a landfill adjacent to the Housatonic River to facilitate its cleanup, the town of Lee is acting like the hare running for its life by making every conceivable move to tear up the Rest of River Cleanup Plan, while its downstream neighbors—Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and Sheffield—remain vested in moving forward to clean the river, understanding a compromise is better than a polluted river.

No one is pleased that General Electric (GE) polluted the river for decades. No one is pleased that GE isn’t really taking it in the shorts for its heinous, deliberate acts. No one is pleased that the compromise that was forged out of years of litigation requires low-level PCBs to be maintained in a landfill near Woods Pond (referred to as the Upland Disposal Facility, which is New England quaint for “toxic waste dump”). In a perfect world, no expense would be spared removing every last PCB-contaminated nanogranule, both from the river and from the immediate area. No one is pleased we live in an imperfect world. And no one in Lee will be pleased to hear that it Is at least one person’s opinion that it is time that Lee stop being the enemy of the good compromise in the absence of an alternative.

Not unreasonably, Lee has diligently attacked the Rest of River Cleanup Plan at every turn. All things being equal, no one would want to have contaminated soil purposefully dumped in their area. It is hardly ugly NIMBY-ism to reject a proposal that calls for the deposit of low-level toxic waste. Let’s agree: Lee took a principled stand against the EPA-imposed mediated landfill compromise, rejecting Option A and open to anything but leaving contaminated soil in Lee. The problem is, there is no funding for less onerous alternatives, including carting away all contaminated soil (and no one—and this should include Lee—wants to suffer the significant environmental impact of a continuous stream of trucks carting every last granule away).

Having watched this from afar, I have to admit that I have long been skeptical that placing toxic waste next to a river makes sense, in the way that we now know building nuclear power plants next to, say, an ocean raises more than some legitimate questions. I will surmise that the experts that opined that it was fine to place toxins next to a river based it on 500- or 1000-year flood data. I am distrustful of the scientific value of any 500- or 1000-year weather analysis. Annually, we see reports of “unusual” 1000-year weather occurrences. You can now practically set your watch by Davenport, Iowa’s annual 1000-year snowmelt floods. Hurricanes threatening Southern California anyone? Fires in Canada’s Northwest Territories? You know, in the Arctic Circle? At this point, I am only surprised that I am surprised by cataclysmic weather events.

The scientists that have assured us that the landfill is perfectly safe based their analysis on historic data, while one can reasonably wonder if any historical weather data is worth consideration. Am I suggesting that the Housatonic River is likely to flood in the future to such an extent that it disturbs and distributes the toxins in the new landfill? No, I am not qualified to opine, but even a layperson can see that we should carefully regard any analysis of the likelihood of future events based on long-term data as at least questionable.

So, please buckle up because you are about to experience whiplash. Despite misgivings, I support the Rest of River Cleanup Plan and believe it is time for Lee to lay down its swords (attorneys). I conclude—and there is no polite way to say this—that it is time for Lee to throw in the towel. This is as good as it is going to get. Lee is steadfastly blind to anything suggesting the soil be placed in Lee, and none are more blind than those that refuse to see. This is a compromise that leaves no one happy, the definition of compromise.

Lee has lost its arguments in about every way one can all the way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Lee has said it is considering seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of the First Circuit’s opinion. The chance that the Supreme Court will review the opinion rejecting Lee’s legal arguments attacking the EPA-approved settlement are about the same whether Lee files the suggested writ of certiorari or not.

Lee, and I hope I can call you Lee, you fought the good fight and lost. Again, and again, and again. No one thinks less of you for exercising your legal rights, but now you are venturing into the realm of not comprehending what “no” means, something that is likely covered in your middle and high school curricula. Not a good look.

You know when someone has had a few too many and they start to act belligerent? When it gets to the point that someone grabs the keys and makes sure you get a safe ride home? Lee, you have arrived. At a recent meeting of the Rest of River Municipal Committee, your representative called the representatives from Lenox, Stockbridge, and Great Barrington corrupt and untrustworthy, questioning their ability to sleep at night. There was some suggestion that your neighbors had colonized you and made you their serfs (which would be of historical interest if not wildly insane). Your representative accused the committee’s attorney of lying (as an attorney, I can safely say that if you aren’t accused of lying and worse, you aren’t doing it right). Lee, can we agree you have gone off the rails since the First Circuit resoundingly rejected all of your legal arguments in a lengthy, thoughtful opinion and approved the mediated settlement?

Lee, have you considered if accusing your neighbors of nearly 250 years of everything ill under the sun is reflective of your best self? No one is asking you to like the compromise, but it is time for all the affected towns to row in the same direction. Work to make the Upland Disposal Facility the best darn toxic waste site it can be. That is your only play here, given that you are literally holding no cards. Lee, please take a beat before your next move. The better play is to work with rather than attack your neighbors. Let the cleanup begin. Let the river flow.