Closed Door Negotiations in Housatonic River Cleanup Plan Upset Activists

Environmental activists in the Berkshires have been fighting for decades to get PCB’s out of the Housatonic River – which flows from Massachusetts through Connecticut. The chemical, which was once used by a General Electric factory on the river in Pittsfield, can cause cancer.  In recent months, state and federal agencies have been meeting behind closed doors about a clean up plan. But both river advocates and General Electric are unhappy about being excluded. For New England Public Radio, Nancy Cohen reports.

State and federal environmental agencies have been meeting since October, but no one else has been invited. The agencies have agreed among themselves not to speak publicly about the content of the meetings while they’re in process. That’s not sitting well with long-time activists, like Judy Herkimer from the Housatonic Environmental Action League

Unless Epa hears from the citizens They’re  going to come out from behind closed doors and we’re going to get a diluted decision.

 Herkimer says it reminds her of when a consent decree was hammered out in the late 1990s.  That was the negotiated agreement that requires General Electric to pay for the clean up of the river – which is expected to total hundreds of millions of dollars.

 But the agreement also approved a PCB dump right next to an elementary school in Pittsfield. Tim Gray, from the Housatonic River Initiative says the public didn’t have a seat at those meetings either.

Once  again when these talks are being done in Boston and not including Berkshire County residents to  at least be observers of the talks // the result could be  a clean up that is not as strong as it should be.

 When G.E. and the U-S Environmental Protection Agency cleaned up the first two miles of the river they dug up huge amounts of contaminated sediment. Some criticized the impact on habitat – others said it ended up looking like a ditch. In an interview recorded last summer Ken Kimmel, the Massachusetts environmental commissioner, said a clean up on the rest of the river that’s too invasive, could damage the ecosystem

 It has a remarkable profusion of rare species, plants and animals, vernal pools, unique soils, unique habitats. So one simply has to be very careful about doing more harm then good and destroying a river in order to save it

 The section of river now at issue flows through Lenox, not far from Tanglewood. It’s considered one of the most magnificent stretches, but it also has some of the highest concentrations of PCBs.

 Last summer Massachusetts regulators asked the EPA for a seat at the table before the agency finalizes its clean up plan. That led to a series of meetings between the EPA and the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Curt Spalding who heads up the New England office of the EPA says the meetings are closed to the public to allow engineers and biologists the chance to discuss confidentially the best way to meet state and federal statutes.

 It’s been purely a conversation between agencies that are empowered to protect the public and this is /// very much consistent with every clean up the EPA has been involved with. There’s always this process of bringing state and federal perspectives together before a clean up is proposed.

 General Electric has also been excluded from the recent talks. The company declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement saying “If EPA continues to exclude G.E., it is likely to lead to confrontation instead of consensus.”

Vermont Law School professor, Pat Parenteau, was the chief counsel at the New England EPA in the mid-1980s. He says these meetings could be an attempt by the EPA to close ranks against General Electric.

 It could be an  attempt to get Massachusetts on board with E.P.A.’s approach  so that when G.E. ultimately challenges, if it does  E.P.A.’s proposed remedy in court. The two agencies will have a unified  front against any challenge from G.E. 

G.E. and the public will learn about the E.P.A.’s proposed clean up plan at the same time. Curt Spalding says it’ll be released this summer

 The clean up will be proposed publicly /// the public can comment on it // so I think there’s going to be a robust public conversation about this clean up. Those comments will have to be responded to.

 Spalding says the E.P.A. is committed to a clean up that removes enough PCBs so the fish are safe to eat again. He says one criticism that is fair is that the E.P.A. is taking a long time to get the clean up plan finished.