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State pushes to limit Housatonic cleanup

Mass. backs GE’s call to restrict scope of PCB removal


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.
From Canoe Meadows, the 285-acre Audubon wildlife preserve in southeast Pittsfield, the Housatonic River winds its way south in a coil of oxbows through a floodplain flanked by farms and wetlands, creating one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in Massachusetts.

It is also one of the most contaminated. Its riverbed, riverbanks and floodplain soil down to the bedrock are permeated with PCBs, millions of pounds of which were spilled into the river over a 40-year span – until they were banned in 1976 – from General Electric’s sprawling transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield.

The unusual combination of a bucolic setting contaminated by a toxic industrial compound has set the stage for a showdown between the state and federal environmental agencies, which were once allies in overseeing the cleanup of the Housatonic River.

Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection supported the 1999 deal under which GE cleaned up two miles of the river near its former factory site in Pittsfield. Work on that project was completed in 2006.

But the cleanup of the rest of the river, which flows south from Pittsfield to Long Island Sound, has pitted the two agencies against one another.

The EPA, which is authorized by law to select a cleanup strategy and order GE to carry it out, is drafting a proposal based on a decade of scientific analysis of the extent of the PCB contamination, its risks to human health and its effects on wildlife. The EPA’s proposal will be based in part on its assessment of the available techniques for removing PCB-saturated sediment from the area.

The federal agency was to have released its recommendations this fall, setting in motion a lengthy public comment period and a likely court challenge by GE.

But now the agency’s recommendations have been delayed by extraordinary political pressure from its state counterpart.

Echoing a polluter’s claims

DEP Commissioner Kenneth L. Kimmell says his agency considers the serpentine river south of Pittsfield to be too fragile and rare an ecosystem to endure a comprehensive removal of PCBs – a claim that echoes GE’s own arguments against a rigorous cleanup.

“This cleanup is different,” Kimmell declared before a packed Lenox Town Hall audience on Oct. 12. “The river south of Pittsfield meanders through one of the most fragile, pristine areas of the commonwealth.”

His agency – and Kimmell made it clear that he was speaking with “one voice” on behalf of the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick – backs what might be called the 25 percent solution. Despite prior findings that PCBs put humans and their habitat at risk, Kimmell advocated a thorough removal of PCBs only from Woods Pond in Lenox, some 10 miles south of Pittsfield as the crow flies.

Woods Pond, created by a dam, is where 25 percent of PCB-laced sediment in the floodplain has been deposited. The commissioner conceded the DEP approach would leave 75 percent of the PCB contamination untouched in the river south of Pittsfield. The PCBs would be left to gradually break down over hundreds of years. To prevent human exposure, Kimmell said, the DEP would install more fish advisory warnings, place ads in newspapers and conduct “other informational outreach programs.”

In arguing against a more aggressive cleanup effort, he cited “highly sensitive rare species habitats” that he said would be disrupted by excavating PCBs embedded in riverbanks.

“This work,” Kimmell declared, referring to the removal of PCB soils, “is not necessary to meet the human health goals identified by the EPA, and will inevitably cause severe and long-lasting destruction of the Housatonic River ecosystem and state-listed rare species, which far outweighs any environmental benefits from PCB removal.”

In addition, the state agency proposed that the 286,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment dredged from Woods Pond be transported out of the region via the adjacent railroad line – rather than burying the waste in local landfills, as GE has proposed.

“Under no circumstances should there be a hazardous waste landfill constructed in Berkshire County for the excavated materials,” Kimmell said. “To do so plainly adds insult to injury.”

Seated beside Kimmell was Mary B. Griffin, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game.

“We are faced with a suite of unpleasant choices,” Griffin said. “There is no magic bullet here. This is an ecologically unique area, and one of the most studied areas. It hosts a robust biodiversity, despite the contamination.”

But the scientists evaluating the cleanup options for the EPA do not share the view of the state officials that the Housatonic River ecosystem is too fragile to undergo a thorough PCB cleanup.

Keith Bowers of Biohabitats, for example, explained at a series of EPA-sponsored public information sessions last spring in Lenox that riverbanks and floodplains can quickly recover – and flourish in a contaminant-free environment – after the pollution is removed.

In its own ecological risk assessment, the EPA warned of danger to organisms up and down the food chain if large quantities of PCBs are allowed to remain. The agency pointed out, for example, that “bald eagles reproducing in the Housatonic study area would be a risk due to PCBs in fish, their primary food source.”

Too delicate to be cleaned?

The state’s efforts to limit the scope of the PCB cleanup drew criticism from local officials and environmentalists.

Nathaniel Karns, director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said he was disappointed in the DEP’s conclusion that cleaning up PCB contamination along the Housatonic south of Woods Pond would be “too damaging.”

“I have faith in the river’s ability to heal itself -- if the river is cleaned up,” Karns said. “Because of the PCB contamination, the basic organisms in the river are not healthy as they should be. But in Pittsfield, where the river has been dredged and restored, those basic organisms are doing well.”

Dennis Regan of the Housatonic Valley Association questioned whether the DEP was drawing its conclusions based on data GE had provided.

“The EPA says they can restore the river after a PCB cleanup,” Regan reminded the DEP officials at last month’s hearing.

That the top leadership of the state’s environmental agencies would convene an information session in the Berkshires before the EPA recommendations have been finalized was in itself remarkable, and it appeared to confirm that the EPA is preparing to issue a report mandating a far more comprehensive cleanup.

Since late spring, the DEP has been mounting a frantic campaign to head off the comprehensive cleanup approach it fears the EPA will take.

This summer, U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, as well as U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, all wrote letters taking up the DEP’s case, in nearly identical language, and urging the EPA to delay its scheduled examination of the Housatonic River cleanup plan, characterizing the EPA’s yet-to-be recommendations “a rush to judgment.”

Olver, for example, wrote that “state environmental officials want to be assured” that the EPA’s cleanup plan will “refrain from being overly invasive to habitats and the scenic resources of the river.”

Brown wrote that “state environmental officials need assurance that the plan” will “refrain from being overly invasive to the scenic portions of the river.”

Despite these pleas, the EPA conducted its review in July as one step in the development of a cleanup plan that the agency now is expected to release early next year.

Lobbying campaign

The state’s arguments against a full-blown PCB cleanup are similar to those offered by General Electric, which has claimed that a thorough PCB cleanup along the Housatonic would amount to “destroying a river to save it.” That slogan has been picked up and repeated by some elected officials and by local business leaders aligned with 1Berkshire, an organization funded in part by a $300,000 donation from GE.

The claim that an environmental cleanup would actually be bad for the environment also echoes arguments GE and its allies made in the 1990s against cleaning up PCBs along the upper Hudson River in New York. Having lost that battle, the company is now in the midst of a $1 billion project to dredge the river and remove 95 percent of PCB-contaminated sediments.

Along the Housatonic, the stakes also are high for General Electric. By its own estimates, a comprehensive cleanup of the river south of Pittsfield cost the company up to $900 million. It has already invested more than $200 million in cleaning the first two miles of the river, within the city limits.

To protect its interests, the company has deployed a team of well-known lobbyists to present its case for a minimal river cleanup. Among them are Peter Larkin, a former state representative from Pittsfield, and Robert Durand, a former DEP commissioner and a popular figure with local sportsmen groups.

The DEP’s call for a scaled-back cleanup effort along the Housatonic is unusual among polluted sites around the nation, according to Jim Murphy a spokesman for EPA Region 1, which covers New England.

“I don’t know of another situation in which a state environmental protection agency is asking the EPA to do less, rather than more,” Murphy said. “We are engaged with the DEP on many cleanups in Massachusetts where we collaborate – except here.”

Still, by the end of November, Region 1 EPA regulators will have conducted eight sessions with their DEP counterparts to try to work out an agreement on methodology and interpretation of data.

“There are a lot of stakeholders in this process, and part of our job is to evaluate public comments in light of what the science tells us,” Murphy said.

High-level pressure?

But environmental activists say they’re worried that GE is unduly influencing the DEP and potentially compromising the cleanup method the EPA will propose. They point to the presence of Durand as a GE lobbyist, the covert funding of a publicity campaign against a comprehensive PCB cleanup, and the subsequent collapse of the state’s commitment to a thorough PCB cleanup – plus reports that scientists within the DEP who favored comprehensive PCB removal were dismissed.

When DEP officials arrived at the Lenox Town Hall for last month’s hearing, they had to negotiate their way through a crowd of 100 “Occupy Lenox” demonstrators who carried signs decrying GE’s pollution of the Berkshires and the DEP’s purported allegiance to a minimal cleanup.

At least for these protestors, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, they had an all-too-familiar corporate adversary: General Electric.

The demonstrators were not there by accident. The previous Sunday, 300 protestors had participated in the first “Occupy the Berkshires” demonstration in Great Barrington. At a strategy session after the protest, Tim Gray, co-founder of the Housatonic River Initiative, warned that the EPA was being subjected to intense political pressure to agree to a compromise with the state agency.

Gray claimed sources within the EPA had told him that officials in the highest levels of the Obama administration -- where GE’s chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, is a key economic adviser -- were intervening to urge a reduced scope for the cleanup.

Gray’s comments drew an immediate and vigorous denial from EPA Region 1 Administrator Curt Spalding.

“This is simply not true,” Spalding said. “I have stated repeatedly that the EPA’s guiding principle as we identify a cleanup plan for the Housatonic is that we will rely on the best scientific evidence to determine what measures need to be taken to ensure that we are protecting peoples’ health and restoring the Housatonic to good ecological health. I remain committed to an open, inclusive and transparent process that is allowing the communities of the Berkshires to weigh in with their concerns and priorities for the Housatonic River.”

Just the same, there is more to developing a feasible cleanup remedy than scientific credibility. It must also be defensible. After the EPA’s plan is made public and public comments are collected, the plan must be sound enough to withstand any court challenge from General Electric. In such a legal challenge, it might not help the EPA’s case if its cleanup plan is also opposed by the state environmental agency.

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