A $63-million agreement between General Electric and five western Massachusetts towns will help speed removal of highly contaminated sediment from the Housatonic River and its floodplains, federal environmental officials announced Feb. 10.
The 149-mile Housatonic. which flows from Pittsfield, Mass. to Long Island Sound, is contaminated with PCBs, which GE dumped for five decades until the 1970s from its now closed Pittsfield, Mass., facility. Under a 1999 federal consent decree, GE is required to address contamination throughout its industrial site, including the river.
The major components of the settlement include a hybrid disposal with the most contaminated material transported out of state and the remainder sent to a lined upland disposal facility, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The agreement requires GE to complete work in seven areas, including eliminating 100 acres, or one-third, of all capped in place contaminant areas outlined in the original plan, by removing more toxic sediments along six different reaches of the river.
It also requires removing two dams, broadening the approach to remediation of vernal pools, mitigating discharges from GE-owned stormwater pipes at the Pittsfield plant, additional floodplain remediation on 20 residential properties, and a review of riverbank concentrations and erodibility in upper reaches to consider whether additional bank removal is necessary.
The settlement, which resolves two decades of litigation, came after more than a year of mediated negotiation between EPA and stakeholders.
"This landmark agreement is a major milestone in our collective efforts to address PCB contamination in the Housatonic River, and we are looking forward to more comprehensive and faster cleanup activity in the river,” said EPA New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel. “The cleanup will achieve the goal of protecting human health and the environment and ensures that the Housatonic River and its floodplain are restored and preserved as an asset to the community.”
Sen. Adam Hinds (D-Mass.) said in a Feb. 10 statement that while the agreement is “the best the towns and the city could expect, given the alternatives,” and an improvement on a 2016 cleanup plan, he finds it “regrettable…our laws, regulations and precedent allow for less than full cleanup, and as a result the municipalities were threatened with endless litigation they could not afford in pursuit of an outcome they did not know they could win. The alternative to negotiation was bleak.”
The Berkshire Environmental Action team, a nonprofit, says the agreement requiring removal of 100 more acres of PCB sediment than the previous permit it had appealed, is “our best opportunity to …protect the environment for wildlife,” contending that EPA has committed to “identifying opportunities to apply existing and potential future research resources to PCB treatment technologies.”