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Despite legal challenge, EPA and GE take steps to assess PCB disposal site in the Berkshires

Wetland on GE property off Woodland Road in Lee, Massachusetts.
Clare Lahey
Wetland on GE property off Woodland Road in Lee, Massachusetts.

Despite ongoing legal challenges, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric will gather data next year as part of the toxic waste cleanup of the Housatonic River.

About a year ago, two environmental groups began the process of appealing EPA's cleanup permit, which includes disposing as much as 1.3 million cubic yards of river sediment, containing PCBs, in Lee, Massachusetts.

But the appeal hasn't stopped the EPA. In 2022 the agency and GE will analyze water samples from the east and west branches of the river to determine where most of the PCBs are coming from. The agency is also inviting public input, by January 21, on GE's proposed activities for investigating the dump site.

At a recent Citizen's Coordinating Council meeting with the EPA, a resident from Lee, Massachusetts, raised questions about the agency's knowledge of a wetland and other habitat at the proposed site of the PCB toxic waste disposal site. The agency offered to walk the site with the resident.

Clare Lahey has lived in Lee for 45 years and her home is less than a mile from the proposed disposal site. Part of the property includes a favorite walk of Lahey's. She and another resident walked it with Dean Tagliaferro from the EPA on Monday. Lahey said she pointed out an area that was forested.

"Dean didn't think there was going to have to be an extensive amount of tree cutting. As we walked he saw [and said] 'Oh my. Gosh. Yes,'" recalled Lahey. "And as we walked along Woodland Road there's a wetland, and he was not aware of that wetland."

Asked about that, the agency did not say whether it was previously unaware of those areas.

In an email, the EPA said, "The group walked over most of the GE parcel, including the area designated for soil and sediment disposal, and the wooded area in the northeast of the parcel. Observations included heavily disturbed areas—construction debris, gravel piles, minimal vegetation; and areas with tree cover, standing water and four culverts where water discharges into the eastern portion of the GE property."

The agency said the next step is for GE to assess the habitat after the agency approves the company's work plan.

GE has proposed doing a baseline assessment of habitat at the site, including a wetlands survey, as well as an assessment of groundwater quality to document any existing contamination. That way, in the future, the EPA will know if any contaminants existed before the disposal facility was built.

GE also wants to drill wells to determine the height of the groundwater table with the goal of designing the bottom liner of the disposal facility so it's at least 15 feet above groundwater.

Also in 2022, GE will study which techniques to use to analyze PCBs in the river. It will also evaluate the best locations for sampling at dams at Woods Pond and Rising Pond.

The EPA said it doesn't expect GE will start digging up PCBs from the river until 2024 at the earliest. Once it does, it could take 15 years to complete the cleanup.

Meanwhile, the environmental groups' appeal remains in the hands of the agency's Environmental Appeals Board, which heard oral arguments in September. A decision is expected in 2022. If it's denied, the environmental groups have said they'll take the case to federal court.

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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