GE outlines planned Housatonic cleanup ahead of EPA order

By Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle PITTSFIELD -- And here's how we'll do it, says a new 83-page report from the General Electric Co. complete with maps, attachments and a glossary of 54 abbreviations and acronyms. All that, even though "it" isn't official.

Duty-bound by a 20-year-old consent decree, and a far newer pact, the company just dropped a broad-strokes description of how it would go about removing carcinogenic toxins it spewed for decades into the Housatonic River. The filing with the Environmental Protection Agency comes four months after GE signed an agreement that allows it to bury roughly nine-tenths of the material dredged from the river's reaches in a new engineered landfill in Lee. Meantime, opponents of that planned dump site for sediments containing lower levels of polychlorinated biphenyls plan their first large public protest since the pandemic hit.

Members of No PCB Dumps and others will gather at Lee's town green at 4 p.m. Thursday. The EPA will be the next big player to weigh in, when it releases revisions to an already modified plan on how the removal of PCBs will proceed.

That document, expected this summer but not before late July, will be submitted for public comments. Dave Deegan, a public affairs officer for the EPA, said last month that members of the EPA's Boston-based staff have continued to work during the pandemic, following restrictions on social distancing. Article Continues After

GE's filing last week is not subject to public comment, though a spokesman for the EPA says people can provide reactions to the agency's point person in Pittsfield, Dean Tagliaferro, with the promise that reactions will be reviewed. ZaNetta Purnell, the EPA's community involvement coordinator, says that while GE's filing does not include a comment period, the agency tries to make submissions available for public review "whenever practical" ahead of its own response. Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, says GE's statement does not appear to fulfill promises the company made in the settlement agreement the company signed in February related to PCB removal in vernal pools.

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Instead, she believes the company's outline lies closer to what was described in the EPA's 2016 cleanup plan, rather than the agreement four months ago.

"We fully expect that vernal pools will be remediated," Winn said. "[The cleanup] will be much better than what GE has in its statement of work." In its June 9 statement of work, GE provides a disclaimer, noting that until the EPA's Revised Modified Permit is released, "neither the contested terms of the original Modified Permit nor the terms of the Settlement Agreement are legally binding under the CD and the Permit." The EPA document is sometimes called the "final revised permit." The settlement agreement, signed Feb.

10, followed a year's effort in mediation to resolve legal sticking points for GE. It resulted in the company not being compelled to ship all dredged material outside of Massachusetts. The company agreed to provide £55 million to local communities.

Article Continues After That February pact called for GE to begin work planning the Rest of River project, after years of delays. The company was obligated to lay out basic elements of what is expected to be an accord on the cleanup process -- at least between the company and the EPA.

The report is full of definitions and numbers, from the allowable "downstream transport of PCBs" to the amount of the toxin found in fish 15 years after the cleanup in any one reach is done. The project is expected to take a decade or longer. Among other things, the company outlines how it will work with affected communities, including monitoring the conditions of roads used to truck away sediment.

South of Pittsfield, the river runs through Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield. Opponents of the Lee dump, the Upland Disposal Facility, are expected to turn out in force for hearings this summer or fall on the EPA's revised cleanup order. Before then, people can comment by contacting Tagliaferro by email at [email protected] or Purnell at [email protected]

Purnell said comments should be shared before July 17.

Larry Parnass can be reached at [email protected], at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.

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