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EPA Says Housatonic River Cleanup On Track Despite Pandemic

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the COVID-19 pandemic is not delaying the cleanup of the Housatonic River.

On February 10th — exactly one month before Massachusetts declared a state of emergency over the pandemic — a large audience gathered in Lenox to hear the EPA, General Electric, representatives from municipalities along the river, and others announce they had reached an agreement to clean up a stretch of the Housatonic River from Pittsfield south to Great Barrington.

"Thus far, the work to address contamination of the Housatonic River has not been delayed by the Covid-19 situation," the EPA said in a statement, adding that the agency "has remained in contact with GE regarding all aspects of field operations and planning for future efforts." 

The statement also said in light of COVID-19, the agency's priority is the health and safety of people involved with toxic waste cleanups.

In a letter to the EPA,  written one week after the settlement announcement, GE said that by June 9, 2020 it would submit a schedule of work plans for the investigative and design work it needs to do for the cleanup.

Meanwhile, the EPA is revising the cleanup permit to reflect the new agreement. It will ask for public comments this spring before finalizing the permit later this year.

'Keep holding their feet to the fire'

In a recent Zoom presentation about the mediated agreement, Jane Winn, the executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said she believed without the settlement the Berkshires was “apt to get a dump or three, with at least one being high level.”

Jane Winn, Executive Director of Berkshire Environmental ActionTeam, speaks at the February 10, 2020, announcement of a mediated settlement to clean up the Housatonic River.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
Jane Winn, Executive Director of Berkshire Environmental ActionTeam, speaks at the February 10 announcement of a mediated settlement to clean up the Housatonic River.

Winn participated in the mediation and her group signed the agreement. It calls for one new toxic waste disposal site in Lee for river sediment that, on average, has PCB concentrations that are no higher than 25 parts per million. Higher levels of PCB waste will be shipped to a regulated facility out of state.

Winn also said that as part of the settlement, GE had committed to review new research on alternative technologies for PCB remediation. The EPA also said in the agreement that it will look for opportunities to apply existing and new research to PCB treatment.

“We need to hold them to this,” said Winn. “I really hope the public will keep holding their feet to the fire.”

Winn said she hopes the new technologies could destroy PCBs in existing dumps and possibly in floodplains. At this point, Winn said, she does not know of any technology that could destroy PCBs in the river without first digging up the sediment.

Another environmental group, the Housatonic River Initiative, is against the agreement. It opposes more toxic waste dumps in the Berkshires. Pittsfield already has two PCB disposal sites that were used during the cleanup of the first two miles of the Housatonic River.

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