Parks Manager James McGrath goes over some of the issues with the EPA's current cleanup proposal at Thursday's information session.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Only a smattering of city residents offered commentary Thursday on the next piece of an emerging plan for a cleanup of the Housatonic River that the EPA says is still years from beginning.
Through Oct. 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is accepting input on the draft modification to the RCRA permit outlining the broad strokes of a proposed remediation of the "Rest of the River," from Fred Garner Park to the Long Island Sound, contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls dumped by Pittsfield's General Electric plants up until the substance was banned in 1977.
"We will take into consideration the whole range of comments, and respond to them all in writing," said EPA Community Involvement coordinator Jim Murphy. "Whether we incorporate them into any changes in our proposed plan remains to be seen.
The formal hearing on the RCRA permit will be held on Sept. 21, at Lenox Memorial High School, but Thursday's meeting, along with another at Herberg Middle School on Thursday, Sept. 4, at 7 p.m., was intended to help the city develop its own official input to the EPA. A similar public forum is being held by the town of Lenox on Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Berkshire Scenic Railway Station.
"I seriously suggest that if you have serious comments that you want on the record that you contact the EPA," said Director of Community Development Douglas Clark.
"We really want to use this as an opportunity to get your thoughts and impressions," added Parks, Open Spaces and Natural Resources Manager James McGrath, who along with Clark presented some of the key points of the currently proposed remedy.
Currently, the broad plan for the remediation of the entire remainder of the river involves a 13-year, $613 million operation that would include excavation of 45 acres of floodplain, capping of 300 acres of river bed, and removal of about one million cubic yards of material that hopes to accomplish "a 90 percent reduction of downstream transportation of PCBs," according to McGrath.
A sizable portion of this cleanup will occur in Pittsfield, with about 26 acres of floodplain and 42 acres of riverbed to be remediated. Between Fred Garner Park and the Lenox town line, the cleanup will remove about 240,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, about one quarter of the total removal planned for the Housatonic River.
Pittsfield's portion of the remediation will take about five years, with 8,760 truck loads being transported annually, or about 34 per day in the construction season.
The current remediation approach represents a "middle of the road" choice from a list of possible remediation alternatives. The most intensive of these Rest of River alternatives would involve a $1 billion cleanup that would remove three billion yards of the contaminated earth in a process that would take 52 years instead of 13.
"Unfortunately, I think at the neighborhood level, there is not a lot of information available," said Clark, who said that once the RCRA permit is agreed upon, there are several more planning phases during which the EPA and GE will hammer out more specific details of where and how the cleanup will occur.
Some broad guidelines are spelled out, however, including the intention for all soil to be removed to existing disposal sites, none of which are located in Massachusetts, and a preference for rail transportation over road.
A sparse crowd attending included longtime opponents of a high-impact cleanup, along with some residents who argued that what the EPA is proposing would be no worse than that already undertaken at the Pittsfield sites already remediated.
C. Jeffrey Cook expressed concerns that EPA's current permit proposal offers little information about the specific neighborhood impacts their chosen alternative will have, which he and some other riverfront property owners feel could be disastrous.
"Unless you put up a map of our neighborhoods, with the river and the floodplains, and we can start to talk about how it gets moved out of the river and over the floodplains, in 20-ton truck through our neighborhoods and on our streets," Cook said. "The people here have no idea what they face."
"I don't think this presentation sufficiently impressed that," said Cook, who three years go founded the Ward 4 River Watch
group. Cook is also secretary and board member for 1Berkshire, which launched the first local resistance to dredging the river in January 2011, shortly after the receipt of $300,000
seed money donation from General Electric.
"Did they do a study of mortality from truck accidents?" added Dave Bubriski, another member of the Ward 4 group. "I'm sure that's part of the whole process. They haven't disclosed that."
Other river neighbors differed in their take on the proposed cleanup strategy.
"We've already seen what this was like," said Ward 4 resident Valerie Anderson who noted that the prospective five-year timetable of Pittsfield's portion of the remediation was similar to what already transpired here a decade ago. "It was disruptive at times, but we lived through it."
Anderson said she would prefer to see the plan call for more intensive cleanup of some of the environmentally sensitive areas than is currently proposed in the RCRA permit document.
"I went through years of the trucks, and everything," said David Gibbs, who described his Newell Street property as being in "ground zero" in the first phase of the river cleanup. "It actually wasn't that bad."
"If you go down by the East Side Cafe now, and look down through that river, it hardly looks like it was ever touched," he added. "They did a great remediation job."
"I think it's very hard to find anyone who wasn't satisfied once it was all done," said Murphy, of the EPA's work to meet with and accommodate neighbors during that remediation. "I can't say that everyone's going to be happy, and the project's going to be seamless, and there's not going to be impacts."
Mayor Daniel Bianchi sympathized with concerns about not knowing the specific details of what the remediation would entail and how it would impact individual residents.
"That's a conundrum I find myself in as well," said Bianchi. "How do we comment when we don't really know the plan?"
Murphy said that following the Oct. 1 deadline, the EPA will take "several months" going over the input from residents and local governments before releasing its final draft of the RCRA permit.
There is then a process by which GE can appeal the terms if it chooses, though even if the company and federal agency come to agreement rapidly, the parties must next develop a Detailed Remediation Work Plan, a Quality of Life Compliance plan, and a Cultural Resource archaeological plan, a process expected to take several more years.
"The revision to our proposed plan remains to be seen," concluded Murphy, who said modifications are common to all of the EPA's major cleanup ventures. "It never happens that a plan comes out where the decision is the same as the proposed plan."