Everett Handford, from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office, listens to Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi and Pittsfield's Community Development Director Douglas Clarke.
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — Six municipalities expected to be affected by the cleanup of the Housatonic River are looking to the federal government for backup.
The "Rest of the River" municipal group is a coalition sharing resources to negotiate a settlement with General Electric for the impacts the cleanup will have on the county.
On Wednesday, the group asked representatives from the Berkshire's federal delegation for help.
"We are going, at some point, to need your support and horsepower," Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi told the three representatives.
Bianchi was speaking to Amaad Rivera, from U.S. Sen. Edward Markey's office, Everett Handford from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office and Dan Johnson from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal's office. The three joined Wednesday'a meeting to start to get a handle on the issues and their roles moving forward.
"We're trying to get some clarity on exactly what this coalition is looking for," Rivera told the group. "I came here to listen ... We want to be as accessible as possible."
Rivera said he is looking for the group to lead the way. The coalition is particularly concerned, at this point, with ensuring it has a say when the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric start hammering out the details of each portion of the cleanup. Those details include such things as truck routes and staging areas.
"We don't have a lot of wiggle room in our budgets for impacts," said Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. "This is critical. Everything comes down to very local issues."
According to Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns, the towns do not currently have an outlined seat at the table to negotiate those specific details.
"The only ones who could possibly do that is the federal delegation," Bianchi added.
However, those details are far from being hashed out. The EPA had just recently released the proposed scope of the cleanup for public comment, shortly followed by an extension of the comment period until Oct. 1. The Rest of the River group is preparing comments together and each of the towns are preparing its own, municipal specific comments.
"We will sign on to what the group signs on," said Sheffield representative Rene Wood. "We will probably make some additional comments on things specifically related to us."
Wood added she submitted comments for herself as well, giving it a "tiered" approach.
Bianchi said Pittsfield is looking to hold two public meetings to gather additional input. However, he doesn't expect to see a dramatic change from what he has already heard, which is concern for those specific details.
"I think it will be more just comments. I think people want to know how their neighborhood will be affected," Bianchi said.
The meetings will be held on consecutive Thursdays - one Aug. 28 and the other on Sept. 4. The goal is to also provide some answers to questions about the EPA's proposal. Karns suggested asking the EPA to go "on the road" to different towns to answer clarifying questions before the Oct. 1 deadline.
The group has also planned a trip to Fort Edward, N.Y., to meet with officials there and tour the GE cleanup being done on the Hudson River. With those communities already ahead in the process, the members hope to gain some insight on what to expect.
"My understanding is that the EPA staff is preparing a boat trip," Karns said.
The full-day trip includes not only seeing the sights but also meeting with local officials.
Also on Wednesday, Karns informed the committee that the grant paying for BRPC staff to handle administrative work with the group has been exhausted for the rest of this calendar year. He expects some $6,000 more to be needed to finish out 2014, which will have to come from the town's allocation to the process.
Wood offered to take on some of the administrative costs to reduce Sheffield's expenditure toward those purposes.
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