Tim Gray, director of the Housatonic River Initiative, pushed for chemical and biological technologies to break down the PCBs in the river.
LENOX, Mass. — Why is this even being negotiated?
That's what many of the residents along the Rest of the River corridor rhetorically asked Monday night in regards to the cleanup of PCBs in the Housatonic River.
Mediator John Bickerman has been brought in to help reach a compromise between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric regarding the final section of the river that needs to be cleaned up.
Bickerman led a public forum at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School on the matter in hopes to come up with new ideas for the cleanup.
"I initially was involved three years ago and that process didn't go anywhere," Bickerman said. "I think there is a potential for compromise that is better than right now."
Bickerman said the sides haven't come to any specific proposals since mediation began in earnest after Labor Day. He said once there is a potential plan, he'll be back at public meetings sharing it and digging into the details. For now, he hopes to brainstorm ways to move forward.
But residents along the corridor questioned why?
The EPA had previously released a plan for the clean up that many thought didn't go far enough. GE challenged that plan and, under appeal, a provision requiring the polychlorinated biphenyls the company dumped into the river during its Pittsfield heyday to be shipped out of state was questioned.
The EPA's proposed $613 million cleanup isn't a full dredging, leaving many of the cancer-causing chemicals in the water but capped, and there was little consideration for using chemical or biological means to break what is left down.
That led many to feel shortchanged in the EPA's decision and now the appeal threatens to make it even less palatable to residents.
"What is in front of us is the compromise. That has been done and GE is just trying to wear everybody out," said Narain Schroeder of Berkshire Natural Resources Council.
EPA officials said they are still working on answering the appeal in hopes their plan will stick. But at the same, they are also pursuing mediation.
"Our goal for the mediation is simply to see if there is a solution everyone can agree with consistent with the consent decree that can lead to a faster and better clean up," said Tim Conway of the EPA.
Pittsfield resident Valerie Anderson said she hopes whatever comes out of mediation isn't going to lead to a toxic waste dump in the county.
"I hope the towns don't accept dirty money from GE in exchange for letting them put another toxic waste dump in Berkshire County," Anderson said. "Our community has a disproportionate amount of toxic waste dumps already."
The cleanup plan for the center of Pittsfield included the creation of Hill 78 and Building 74, two toxic waste dumps inside the city's boundaries. Anderson added that under another former GE building, a brook was simply rerouted away from the chemicals, creating a third in the city of Pittsfield.
The EPA had considered three options for waste sites in south county, all of which residents hotly oppose. Many at Monday's meeting said the locations made no sense because the sites were located right along the river.
With a show of hands, it appeared nearly all of the audience was against considering having a dump site in the county.
Others continued to push for chemical or biological means to break down the PCBs. As Lenox Selectman Warren Archey put it, "if you can make it, you can break it."
"I would like to see chemical and biological neutralizes on the river this time rather than make a big mess," he said.
Tim Gray, director of the Housatonic River Initiative, said with so many PCBs being left in the river in the proposed plan, why bother?
He said a similar cleanup was done in the Hudson River and years later environmental officials are back at the table looking for more to be cleaned. He sees the EPA's plan as putting the residents in the same position. He added that the EPA's plan leaves sensitive areas contaminated. And now, there is a chance that the soil gets dumped right next to the river.
"Those three things give us a crappy cleanup," he said. "There is a way to a good clean up instead of letting GE walk all over us."
Gray pushed for pilots of other ways to break down the chemical.
Tim Conway from the EPA outlined the status of the cleanup.
But Bryan Olson of the EPA said none of the technologies created so far have been proven to be effective with the type of PCBs in the river.
He said in some cases chemicals have been developed that can break PCBs down in a laboratory but not in the field. He said the EPA is constantly looking for technology that can do so.
Resident Phil Gilardi, however, was one of two to stand out from the crowd, saying they just want to get the project going.
Gilardi said the landfill in Pittsfield hasn't caused problems. He said that set a precedent that the soil would get put into local landfills.
"The precedent has already been there. It is in Hill 78. It is in Silver Lake," he said. "We left it in Pittsfield, in the middle of the city, and now we are worried about putting it in the boonies."
Another resident voiced support for moving the project along saying when the cleanup does happen, it will provide numerous jobs to people in the county, thus lifting the economy.
Others voiced skepticism of the entire mediation process.
"I support mediation but I honestly do not believe this thing will end outside of a smoke-filled room," said one man, whose name iBerkshires was unable to catch.
Others were a little more blunt, with a man named Sage referring to the pollution of the river as "a crime against humanity."
"When somebody commits a crime, you don't find a punishment they can agree on," Sage said.
Bickerman, however, sees mediation as the best shot to get the project moving. It has been more than two decades since the issues were first revealed. It has been a long time coming and Bickerman said if the two sides can't find an agreement, then it will be fought in court for years to come.
"If there is no settlement, this process is going to continue and continue," he said. "It is quite possible the community could end up with no resolution for a long time."
Olson said the EPA is willing to fight in court and believes they will win. However, he believes GE feels the same about their chances in court. There is no way to know which side would win such a battle.
Meanwhile, Olson said the EPA stands by its decision but agreed to mediation in case another option would show itself.
"Our job is to protect the public out here and we take that really seriously," Olson said.
Bickerman urged the audience to keep an open mind and not automatically reject any potential agreement before knowing the details. Many in the audience dug in saying they'd rather fight GE until the end to get the best cleanup than to settle on something lesser.
"We're angry and frustrated," said Judy Eddy of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. "GE should pay through the nose for the best possible solution. There should be no compromise on that, we've compromised for years."
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