The Housatonic River flows from Massachusetts down through Connecticut to Long Island Sound. It’s a popular destination for people who canoe and fish. But it’s also considered “impaired” by the state because it’s polluted. The fight to clean it up has played out for decades. Now in the latest round, the state of Massachusetts is squaring off with the E.P.A. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports
Back in the 1930’s General Electric used PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls to make electrical transformers in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in a factory on the Housatonic River. About forty years later Congress banned the chemical. Then, in 2000, General Electric signed an agreement with the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts and with the federal government requiring the company to pay for cleaning up the river. Curt Spalding heads up the New England office of the E.P.A. He hopes eventually people can eat fish again, which would require an extensive clean up.
“We want to give the river back to the people of the Berkshires.”
So far PCBs have been removed from the first two miles. Contaminated sediment on the river bottom was dredged. Riverbanks were dug up too and then armored with big rocks to stop erosion. Ken Kimmell, Commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP says that approach is not appropriate in this next section, which flows through an area better known for Tanglewood than for toxins.
“It has a remarkable profusion of rare species, plants and animals, vernal pools, unique soils, unique habitats. And so one simply has to be very carefully about doing more harm than good.”
But the Connecticut D.E.P. wrote the EPA in January asking for a clean up that reduces PCB contamination in Massachusetts “to the greatest degree possible.” Connecticut also wrote: “While there is no doubt remedial activities are disruptive in the short term successful environmental restoration can be conducted...”
In the past three years General Electric has submitted to the E.P.A. a detailed analysis of different clean up proposals. The company prefers the least invasive, “Monitored Natural Recovery”, which would not dig anything up. The only option that’s cheaper is doing nothing. G. E. has declined an interview request for this story.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t made public yet what kind of clean up it prefers. First, E.P.A.'s regional office wants its national experts, known as the Remedy Review Board, to weigh in on its proposal. Again Curt Spalding from the E.P.A.
”We need to get to EPA’s best thinking about how to clean up this river. That’s the next milestone. To stop now would just throw that off track.”
But the state of Massachusetts wants to delay the review. So does General Electric. Connecticut hasn’t asked for a delay. In the last two weeks the head of the E.P.A. in Washington received at least four requests for a delay (PDF).
“Members of Congress sent to Lisa Jackson letters asking that the process be essentially arrested now and negotiation with the state started now, a detailed negotiation, about the proposal.”
The Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts (PDF) wrote Lisa Jackson asking to "engage in an intensive discussion with the Commonwealth and representatives of G.E.” before EPA's proposal is submitted for internal review. G.E. (PDF) also wrote Jackson for a delay and referenced the state’s letter.
Curt Spalding of the E.P.A. says he wants feedback from his own agency before going public.
“We've probably done more remedy than any agency in the world. I’d like have the best thinking from the people within E.P.A. before I get into a conversation with G.E., or the state of Massachusetts or the public”.
But Ken Kimmell with the Massachusetts D.E.P. says his state wants a seat at the table, now.
“We want to sit down and negotiate and discuss. And so we would like to be partners with E.P.A. in terms of figuring this clean up out as opposed to just another bystander who comments whatever EPA comes up with.”
Curt Spalding says the E.P.A. proposal can be changed after his agency reviews it.
The E.P.A. has not yet responded to the requests for a delay and intends to begin its review July 27th.