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Could The Presidential Election Affect The Housatonic Cleanup?

Last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrapped up a public comment period on its controversial plan to remove toxic PCBs from the Housatonic River. The agency said it hopes to issue its final plan by the end of the year.

That would be before any possible change at the White House.

It can take a long time to figure out how to clean up a river. Throw in two states, five towns, environmentalists with different perspectives, a federal agency bound by laws and red tape, a polluter with lots of lawyers, toxic waste that needs to be put somewhere — and it can take decades.

In the case of the Housatonic River, it's taken 20 years and counting. But now things may be moving forward. 

At an announcement of a mediated agreement to clean up the river, Roger Martella of General Electric said the company — whose Pittsfield plant released PCBs into the Housatonic for decades — would start the design immediately.

"I’m sincere on that," Martella said. "This is a far better alternative to more years of protracted litigation which would delay the cleanup and extend the uncertainty."

But some want more time so that the public can influence the cleanup permit.

The permit is slated to include a low-level toxic waste disposal site in the Berkshires — saving GE the cost of shipping it all out of state. 

Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative said the EPA is trying to finish the cleanup plan with lightning speed.

"They want to make sure that this very weak permit against General Electric gets through for the company before the administration might change," Gray said.

But Jim Murphy, a retired New England EPA staffer who worked for 13 years on the GE/Housatonic site, has a different view.

"It doesn't seem that fast to me," Murphy said. "It's been going on for years."

Murphy said a new administration wouldn’t change the outcome. He experienced a change in administrations three times, under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump.

"No matter who is victorious in this upcoming election, I don’t see a whole lot of changes as far as how the G.E. project would proceed one way or the other," said Murphy. "Obviously the election is going to be significant, but the trickle down to a specific site is really not visible."

And the Housatonic River cleanup issue isn’t really a partisan one. Top Democrats, including U.S. Senator Ed Markey, praised the deal.

Tim Whitehouse also used to work at the EPA, as a senior attorney enforcing clean water and hazardous waste laws. Today he directs the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, a group that protects whistleblowers who work for environmental agencies.

"Federal agencies always work to finalize their permits and regulations and policy objectives of the administration before they leave office and before an election," Whitehouse said. "So that's the normal course of business."

He said that was true when he was at the EPA during two transitions — including from Clinton to Bush, a transition he called smooth and amicable. But he said things have changed under President Trump.

"What's different about this administration is the complete abruptness and hostility that this administration has toward environmental regulations and toward regulation to protect public health," he said.

Whitehouse said the agency is trying to finalize as many hazardous waste cleanups as possible. He points to goals set by Trump’s first EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt. Pruitt set up a task force in 2017 which recommended expediting cleanups.

Last year the agency delisted 27 Superfund sites — the most since 2001. And the EPA is on track to delist another 27 before the end of this year, its acting general counsel told a podcast produced by the law firm Wiley Rein LLP.

Whitehouse said now, under Trump’s second EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, the agency is promoting the number of cleanups it checks off the list.

"So that EPA can claim progress in terms of cleaning up hazardous waste sites," Whitehouse said.

But Whitehouse added he is not hearing that specifically about the GE/Housatonic site.

Kyla Bennett, who also works for PEER and who worked for EPA New England for a decade, said the agency’s career employees try to do the right thing and use the laws to protect the environment and residents.

Bennett said staffers in New England and the Pacific Southwest — which includes California — are among those who push back the hardest.

"Regions 1 and 9 probably are the most environmentally protective regions. They're known by headquarters, they always have been, as the regions that...push the envelope," Bennett said.

If there is a change at the White House, it’s likely the EPA’s New England region would get a new acting administrator. So if the Housatonic cleanup is not finalized by then, it could sit unresolved for months more.

Some living near the river say getting rid of the PCB dump, even if it takes more time, is their priority. 

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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