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EPA Issues Final Permit For Next Phase Of The Housatonic River Cleanup

A stretch of the Housatonic River.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A stretch of the Housatonic River.

Updated 3:30 p.m. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has issued a revised final permit for the next stage of cleanup of the Housatonic River. General Electric polluted the river with PCBs for decades when it operated a plant in Pittsfield, Massachusettts. 

According to a Thursday press release from the EPA, the permit "spells out the required cleanup measures to be followed by General Electric Company (GE) to remove contamination caused by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)." See the permit in full here (PDF).

The EPA also says more PCB-laden materials will be removed from the river and surrounding areas under this modified plan, instead of the original one, which was released in 2016.

One issue at the center of a dispute over how to proceed with the cleanup has been where to dump the waste.

The EPA had first called for all of the affected sediment to be disposed of out-of-state. But General Electric, which is paying for the cleanup, objected.

That led to protracted mediation between the EPA and eight parties, including local and state government, as well as environmental groups. The compromise reached earlier this year allowed for some "lower-level" PCB-laden materials to be disposed of near the Lee-Lenox line, with the more toxic waste taken elsewhere. 

Other environmental groups objected to the changes.

As for Thursday's announcement, the head of the EPA for New England lauded the revised permit. 

"EPA is very proud of the hard work and commitment of all stakeholders to achieve a cleaned up Housatonic River that will remain a scenic and recreational foundation in Berkshire County and Connecticut for generations to come," said Dennis Deziel, EPA New England Regional Administrator.  "This cleanup plan will protect public health and restore a cleaner, healthier and more robust ecological community in and near the river."

The plan is still not quite a done deal. The EPA said appeals can be filed over the permit until February 3, 2021.

The Housatonic River Initiative, an environmental group, is planning to file an appeal. Its director, Tim Gray, said that besides dumping the waste locally, the plan also doesn't remove enough PCBs from the river, and doesn't actually clean up the Connecticut portion.

"They get a thing called 'monitored natural recovery,' and they call that science," Gray said. "What it really means is: do nothing."

Any appeals would be heard by the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board.

Another environmental group, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, was a party to the negotiations and signed off on the deal. Its executive director, Jane Winn, said the final approval is an important step forward.

"I'm really glad to have the process moving forward," Winn said. "I think the sooner we get the PCBs out of the river, the happier I will be."

The cleanup will cost about $576 million, and will take two to three years for initial design activities and another 13 years to implement.

This report includes information from the Associated Press.

Copyright 2020 New England Public Media

Adam is based at New England Public Radio’'s Berkshire County news bureau in Pittsfield, where he has been since August, 2015. He joined NEPR as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.

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