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A gate leading to the former GE site in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.NEPM's Nancy Cohen explores the economic and environmental legacy General Electric left behind in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where only a small staff for the company remains.

Turning To Town Meetings To Overturn Approval Of PCB Dump In Berkshire County

The Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial plan to build a PCB disposal site in Berkshire County is the subject of several proposals on the Town Meeting agenda in Lee, Massachusetts, on Thursday night.

Citizens in other towns are taking a similar strategy. Lenox held a special Town Meeting outside on Saturday afternoon. Residents wanted to “advise the Board of Selectmen to rescind their support” of EPA’s cleanup plan of the Housatonic River.

Lenox’s proposal, and others in Great Barrington and Lee, grew out of citizen opposition to an agreement by representatives of five cities and towns near the river — along with the EPA, some environmental groups and General Electric.

The company contaminated the river with PCBs from the 1930s through the 1970s, when they were banned by Congress.

The agreement calls for shipping sediment containing higher levels of PCBs to a facility out of state. But the lower levels would be at a disposal site in Lee, just across the river from Lenox Dale.

Speaking at the Lenox Town Meeting, resident Debra Kelly said the voters did not have a say.

"This is a horrible solution for all of us in Berkshire County, but especially for the residents of Lenox Dale and Lee," Kelly said. "The total lack of transparency demonstrated in this process is really hard to comprehend, let alone accept. The insanity of this is that GE, the polluter, wins."

Ed Lane is a member of the Lenox Select Board, which unanimously approved the agreement. He said his home is close to the disposal site.

"I live about 2,300 feet away, but I believe in science," Lane said. "I believe in technology. I believe in engineering. And this is going to be a dump with very low levels of toxins in it. It’s going to be overbuilt. So I feel perfectly safe living next to that."

But by a slim majority, 72-65, voters disagreed, advising the Select Board to rescind their support of the cleanup deal.

Lenox is due to get $25 million from GE. The town attorney said the agreement is a signed contract, and if the town were to attempt to pull out of it, Lenox could be sued.

A "No PCB Dumps" sign in Lee, Massachusetts, where the EPA proposes a disposal site for sediment containing PCBs.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
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NEPM
A "No PCB Dumps" sign in Lee, Massachusetts, where the EPA proposes a disposal site for sediment containing PCBs.

Meanwhile, in the neighborhood in Lee near the disposal site, signs declaring “No PCB Dumps” dot front lawns.

Resident Janice Castegnaro Braim, who grew up in that neighborhood, said the whole town should get to vote on the disposal site. 

"It's not healthy. It's not right," she said. "I feel, you know, we could vote on plastic bags, but we couldn't vote on a toxic dump, which is ridiculous. And I think the selectmen should listen to the people who they're representing, and rescind this deal."

Lee Selectman Patricia Carlino represented the town in the negotiations with General Electric. She said that originally, she vowed to lay down on the ground before any construction started on a dump in Berkshire County. But after participating in the closed-to-the-public mediation for more than a year, she decided the deal was “the least bad.”

"If we went back to court and lost, we'd lose everything. And I'm not talking money," Carlino said. "We'd have three dumps in Berkshire County. We'd have everything that is in the river in Berkshire County."

Selectman Patricia Carlino of Lee, Massachusetts, represented the town in negotiations with General Electric and the EPA over a toxic waste cleanup of the Housatonic River.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
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NEPM
Selectman Patricia Carlino of Lee, Massachusetts, represented the town in negotiations with General Electric and the EPA over a toxic waste cleanup of the Housatonic River.

Meaning if a court battle ensued, and the towns lost, all the PCB waste dug up from the river could be dumped in the Berkshires.

GE’s original proposal was for three disposal sites in the county.

At Lee’s Town Meeting Thursday night, representatives will meet in a school auditorium – and registered voters in the gymnasium, with audio and video communication between the two rooms.

It’s an arrangement designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But it means people already divided over a toxic waste site don’t have the chance to all come together, face to face.

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