The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission approved both the intergovernmental agreement, which makes them a facilitator, and the agreement between BRPC and Pawa Law Group.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The battle lines have been drawn for what could be one of the most significant legal negotiations this county has ever seen.
Representatives along the "Rest of the River" finalized an intergovernmental agreement as they embark on negotiations with General Electric for compensation of any negative socioeconomic impacts caused by the cleanup of the Housatonic River.
The towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Lee, Lenox and Sheffield have banded together, with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission acting as an facilitator, to hire Pawa Law Group for the negations.
The six communities have now reached an agreement outlining how the process will unfold and, on Thursday, BRPC agreed to enter a contract with Pawa for the services.
"All of the municipalities have negotiated this agreement and all of the towns' attorneys have signed off," Rene Wood, a Sheffield selectman who has served on both BRPC and the Rest of the River group, said on Thursday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working with GE, communities and river shareholders in planning the cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls released by GE in the southern stretch of the river. The details of the cleanup are expected to be released later this year, Wood said, but the cleanup is expected to cause significant damage to the communities.
Wood said a study commissioned by the EPA outlined up to a quarter of a billion dollars worth of damage could be caused in the cleanup process. The city of Pittsfield, General Electric, EPA and a host of state and other agencies signed a consent degree in 1999
for damages and detailing cleanup of the GE sites, other properties and the Housatonic in the city.
The consent decree is valued at more than $250 million but the towns south of the city did not get to negotiate.
"Only the first two miles of the river were discussed," Wood said.
The towns have pledged to contribute $10,000 each to start the negotiations and so far BRPC and two other communities have signed the intergovernmental agreement banding them together. Wood said the other four towns are expected to approve and sign by the end of the month.
"Each of the six communities are very much aware of what they are getting into," Wood said.
If a settlement is reached, the towns will be reimbursed the money they put toward litigation and the rest of the disbursement would be voted by a unanimous decision.
Rene Wood said all of the group's representatives have approved the agreement, which should be signed by all the towns by the end of the month.
An earlier draft of the agreement initially called for a supermajority but the committee went along with the city of Pittsfield's suggestion to make it unanimous.
If there is no settlement, the towns lose the money they put into the litigation. At any point the towns can walk away from the committee but that forfeits their right to any of the settlement — an incentive to keep them banded together.
"We all are stronger by being together," Wood said of the incentives to keep each town at the table.
Any vote regarding negotiating position also requires an unanimous vote.
Pawa was picked by the Rest of the River group after reviewing five firms and interviewing two. BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said Pawa was "above and beyond" qualified for the negations and cited a recent $200 million settlement the group negotiated with Exxon Mobile on behalf of the state of New Hampshire.
"They needed somebody who had more experience than any of the towns had," Karns said of the group's choice. "By far and away, we were the most comfortable with Pawa."
BRPC will act as the facilitator between the committee and Pawa in an effort to avoid requests from six different representatives. BRPC will also serve as the fiscal agent but the agreement protects BRPC from incurring any costs.