The Rest of the River working group met for the first time since January on Wednesday.
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — The Rest of the River working group is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more time to comment on the proposed Housatonic River cleanup.
The panel also on Wednesday authorized paying its attorney to review the plan.
Earlier this month, the EPA released its proposed plan for the cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls used by the electronics manufacturer, presenting it in two public meetings.
That triggered the Rest of the River group to hold its first meeting since January to proceed with the next step.
First, the group is petitioning the EPA to extend the public comment section to October. The EPA said during the public meetings that it already plans on extending the 30-day period until September. That extended time will give the towns a chance to review the proposal, engage the public and develop responses. The group is looking to meet later in the year to craft a letter that encompasses all of its members individual concerns.
"I think we should ask for a longer period. There is still so much to go through," said Sheffield representative Rene Wood.
Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said in filing those comments, she doesn't want the town's individual concerns to end up undermining the effort of the collective group. Pat Carlino, of Lee, said the group will have a lot of commonalities that it can focus on together without overshadowing individual municipal concerns. The group will be trying to strike a balance between the concerns of the individual municipalities and broader questions.
"At the end of the day, we want all of our towns to have the appropriate cleanup," Tabakin said but added that each town may have differences in opinions on aspects that affect their lives.
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi said it would be difficult to reach a consensus of opinion even in the neighborhoods affected. While each section of the cleanup could have residents with strong viewpoint, there are still overarching comments for the group to make.
"I don't think you'll ever come to a community consensus," Bianchi said, outlining that in Pittsfield, there are the groups who want a complete removal of the PCBs and others who want less intrusive methods.
Some group members expressed their immediate concerns on Wednesday. Carlino said she had concerns over the plan for dams. Currently, the dams will remain mostly untouched but language ties General Electric to playing a role in keeping the water and soil clean if and when a plan to remove the dams is presented.
Lee is home to three of the five dams in the cleanup area.
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns validated the concern over dams by citing the Glendale Dam, in which the owners were delayed three years of operations to receive permits and "work around" the PCBs.
Carlino also said she was glad to see that the EPA's plan does not call for a new landfill or facility. Prior to the release of the draft, Lee was thought to be the most likely to be eyed for a landfill to bury the removed soil.
"It doesn't look like we will get a facility in Massachusetts, let alone in the Berkshires," Carlino said.
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns, Lee representative Pat Carlino and Lenox representative Christopher Ketchen.
Wood said she had concerns with the time frame. EPA officials said General Electric would be responsible for the work forever.
But, it isn't exactly clear what will tie the company to cleanup in the future and what mechanisms are in place should the company no longer exist.
"I heard nothing about any money being set aside," Wood said, saying she'd like a trust fund established to ensure the work. "Once you get this [cleanup] done, it is very difficult to reopen it."
The EPA's plan tries to find a middle ground between excavating all of the PCBs over a 50-year period and limiting the effect the cleanup itself will have on towns.
That means, however, that much of the river will have a geoengineered cap, intended to keep the contaminated soil away from the water stream.
"The remedy is a middle ground approach. We are leaving a lot of PCBs behind," said Douglas Clark, a representative from Pittsfield. "It still isn't as black and white as I want it to be."
Clark added that General Electric wants to keep the cost down but is will to spend more to have a concrete end date.
Karns added that "all it takes is a Hurricane Irene going through the center of the county" to destroy much of the capped land.
But just sharing their opinion as both individual municipalities and as a collective group isn't enough. The group wants to ensure they file the right legal documents to have the best standing in the future.
Once the EPA releases the final draft, the public comment period ends. And the group doesn't want to be left out then. As a group, they hope to earn a seat at the table as the plan comes to fruition.
"Should we be asking for a specific role in this process?" asked Karns, receiving a 'yes' response.
Figuring out exactly how the group solidifies its standing is one of the next tasks for Pawa. The group authorized spending up to $15,000 for legal expenses for Pawa. That will cover a review of the proposed clean up, fleshing out questions such as how to get a role and developing the next phase of a strategy moving forward.
That $15,000 expenditure will bring the total expenses up to about $40,000. Last year, the group spent a little more than $24,000 on legal expenses to acquire the services of Pawa and have them perform the legal review of the entire pollution issue and documents.
Each town committed to $10,000 for last year and in this budget cycle, each have committed $10,000 more. Starting the 2015 budget cycle, the group will have some $83,000 authorized to spend. Of the total $120,000 committed, $24,000 was spent last year and the authorization for about $12,000 has expired because of the wording on two individual town meeting warrants. The $15,000 approved Wednesday drops the total authority to about $68,000.
The towns have the ability to call a special meeting to authorize more money if needed.