Environmental advocates appeal EPA's Housatonic River cleanup in federal court
Attorneys representing two environmental groups will be in federal appeals court in Boston on Tuesday arguing against the EPA’s cleanup plan of the Housatonic River.
The Housatonic River Initiative, based in Berkshire County, and the Housatonic Environmental Action League in Connecticut, are fighting the agency's plan to clean up the river, which flows 149 miles from Massachusetts through Connecticut to its mouth in Long Island Sound.
General Electric contaminated the river with PCBs for about 40 years, when the company manufactured electrical transformers at a now-closed plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
The EPA categorizes PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls as a "probable human carcinogen," which can also affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
The federal agency's cleanup plan, which was finalized in 2020, includes digging up soil containing the chemical compound and dumping waste with lower PCB concentrations in a disposal site in the town of Lee. Soil and sediment with higher concentrations will be shipped out of state. This hybrid approach cuts costs for GE. A previous plan from 2016 called for shipping all of the waste to out-of-state regulated facilities.
The attorneys for environmental groups argue the cleanup plan came out of a mediated closed-door settlement, not open to the public — and that the EPA committed to the plan before asking for public comments.
In a legal brief submitted to the First Circuit Court of Appeals they said a decision this important should not be based on "secret" negotiations even if the public has the chance to comment.
But GE said in court documents that the EPA offered the possibility that public comments might lead to the agency adopting a different plan.
The EPA said it followed the law and issued a 140-page response to public comments from more than 400 people.
Despite opposition, the plan to dispose waste in Lee remains.
A dozen Lee residents are renting a van to drive to Boston to hear their case argued in court, including Janice Castegnaro Braim, who grew up in the neighborhood near the dump site. She wants the PCBs treated with new technologies, rather than dug up and is concerned about the health impacts of the disposal site.
"The PCB dump is not going to be safe. It’s going to end up leaking," she said. "[In] my grandchildren's life time, my great grandchildren's lifetime — it's going to leak."
But, the EPA said it will be a state-of-the art double-lined facility, engineered not to leak, that will be monitored over the long term.
Castegnaro Braim said she is also interested in observing what goes on in the federal appeals court.
"I want to see both sides," she said. "We have Boston attorneys who are awesome, so I want to see them in action."
Attorneys for the environmental groups are allotted 20 minutes to argue their appeal. Lawyers for the EPA, General Electric and the Rest of River Municipal Committee, which represents towns on the river, will share 20 minutes to present their response.
Oral arguments begin at 9:30 am Tuesday before a three-judge panel.