Trump's push to cut EPA shouldn't affect 'Rest of River' Housatonic cleanup plan

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LENOX — Despite the sharp cutbacks in the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, staff and programs proposed by the White House last week, the EPA's Rest of River cleanup of the Housatonic by General Electric Co. remains on track for a decision, probably later this year, by an agency appeals board in Washington, D.C.

The deep cuts sought by the Trump administration would slash the agency's annual budget from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion, eliminate one-fifth of the staff and terminate dozens of programs.

"As far as I know, we're moving ahead, it remains business as usual," said Jim Murphy, the EPA's Boston-based spokesman and team leader for government and community relations.

"GE is paying the cost of the project and we haven't had any indication that any of our cleanup programs will be impacted," he added. "There's nothing different for us here on the ground. We're doing our jobs."

At the recent meeting of the Citizens Coordinating Council at the Lenox Library, EPA project manager Dean Tagliaferro told members that the agency has filed separate responses to the five groups and individuals that filed objections at the Environmental Appeals Board to the $613 million, 13-year plan ordering GE to remove or cap most of the probable cancer-causing pollutants from southeast Pittsfield to Lenox and points south.

The council has been monitoring the progress of toxic PCB removal from the Housatonic since 1998.

The legal back-and-forth continues later this month and through the spring, according to the appeals board timetable. The four-member panel of judges, described as part of the EPA but acting independently, has set a June 8 date for verbal arguments on the objections in Washington.

The board could uphold the agency's "intended final decision" for the river cleanup, modify it or — in the most unlikely scenario — send it back to the EPA for a reboot.

But the verdict is unlikely to be the last word before the cleanup begins. As pointed out by Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey Cook, one of the five objectors to the EPA's recommended plan, further appeals are likely to be filed with the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Other objections to all or some portions of the EPA cleanup plan were filed by GE, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, the Housatonic River Initiative, and the Rest of River Municipal Committee representing Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield. Pittsfield is seeking "friend of the court" representation.

Tagliaferro pointed out that portions of the cleanup order that were not appealed are already in effect, primarily a baseline site monitoring plan for the river as well as communication requirements to state and local stakeholders to be prepared by GE and approved by the EPA.

Sampling of PCB contamination along the river's floodplain must be completed by the company, no matter which way the appeals board rules, he pointed out.

The company is also required to plan strengthen fish consumption warnings already posted at some locations along the riverbanks.

The Consent Decree, a legal settlement filed at the U.S. District Court in Springfield in October 2000, also requires GE to clean up some contaminated residential properties downstream from Fred Garner Park off Pomeroy Avenue in southeast Pittsfield, where the east and west branches of the Housatonic meet.

"It's a removal action," Tagliaferro said. "Where somebody has a lawn or part of their property that can be converted to a lawn, not including wetland areas, steep slopes and riverbanks, GE, the EPA and state have identified 41 parcels where the potential [of a PCB cleanup] could exist."

Most of the properties are in southeast Pittsfield off East New Lenox Road — "all the horse streets," as he put it — but there is one in Lenox, off New Lenox Road, and another south of Woods Pond. Several other residential properties are in Lee, Tagliaferro added.

More than 1,000 tested samples for PCB contamination have been collected from the 41 properties. If pollution exists above EPA threshold standards, a cleanup would be triggered automatically, he said.

The test results showed 32 properties did not require PCB removal, but the nine remaining parcels require treatment, six located between Holmes Road and Pomeroy Avenue in Pittsfield. In addition, there are two in Lenox and one in Lee.

GE has selected a contractor for the work, including property restoration after the cleanup. "If all goes well, there will be some remediation of these properties this summer," said Tagliaferro. The 5,000 cubic yards (6,750 tons) of contaminated material will be shipped to an off-site, out-of-state licensed disposal facility.

Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative and a property owner of several acres along the river, protested that because his riverfront site in Lee is not deemed a "recreational area," GE will be exempt from required PCB removal.

"I am obliged to tell anyone who might want to buy my property in the future that it's PCB-contaminated down by the river," said Gray. "Try telling anyone that it isn't going to make them think twice about purchasing the house."

Gray contended that "a whole slew of property owners hundreds of families that own houses along the river" probably have levels of PCB contamination that would require action.

"We're put in this bad position, and it shows that the PCB cleanup will affect certain people along the river forever." he said.

The list of property owners was provided to Pittsfield, Lenox and Lee officials as well as the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said Murphy, the EPA spokesman.

GE discharged PCBs into the Housatonic from its Pittsfield electrical transformer plant from the 1930s until 1977, when the U.S. government banned the use of the chemical.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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