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Environmental Appeal Of PCB Cleanup To Highlight 'Burden And Costs' Of Contamination

Parts of the Housatonic River are contaminated with PCBs, which the EPA considers a probable carcinogen.
Nancy Eve Cohen
Parts of the Housatonic River are contaminated with PCBs, which the EPA considers a probable carcinogen.

Two groups are appealing the Environmental Protection Agency's permit to clean up the Housatonic River.

The focus of the appeal, brought by the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League, includes the decision not to remove any PCBs from the river in Connecticut, and the plan to build a PCB disposal site in Lee, Massachusetts.

The EPA's cleanup permit calls for a double-lined disposal facility engineered to minimize erosion, with a system that would monitor groundwater for PCBs.

The environmental groups' attorney, Andrew Rainer, said one problem with the disposal site is the soil is highly permeable, so the toxins could end up back in the river.

“The community, which has already borne so much of the burden and costs of this contamination, is being asked to continue to bear more of that burden, unfairly,” he said.

A General Electric plant in Pittsfield used polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, from the 1930s until the 1970s in the manufacture of electrical transformers, and contaminated the Housatonic River with them.

The federal government banned PCBs in 1979. The EPA says the chemical compound causes adverse health effects in the endocrine, immune, reproductive and nervous systems, and is a probable human carcinogen.

GE orignally proposed three PCB disposal sites near the river, and the environmental agency wanted the toxin shipped to regulated facilities out of state.

But in the EPA’s final cleanup permit, river sediment containing lower levels of PCBs would be placed in a disposal site in Lee. Sediment with higher concentrations of PCBs would be shipped out of Massachusetts.

Rainer is filing a brief appealing the permit with the Environmental Appeals Board next week. The board is expected to rule within 60 days.

The EPA declined to comment on the appeal.

Rainer said if it is denied, he'll take it to the federal court of appeals in Boston.

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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