Jun 11, 2014
01:33 PM
The Connecticut Story

Housatonic River PCBs Back in News: GE Critical of New EPA Cleanup Plan

Housatonic River PCBs Back in News: GE Critical of New EPA Cleanup Plan

Douglas P. Clement/Connecticut Magazine

The Housatonic River flowing under the historic covered bridge in West Cornwall, Conn., earlier this spring.

Along with the Connecticut River and the Thames River, the Housatonic River is one of the state’s big three waterways—it’s the one at the heart of a watershed covering 112,171 acres that spread out from the river, which starts in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and ends up in Long Island Sound.

The Housatonic represents different things to different parts of Connecticut. The Great Falls in Falls Village (Canaan) are an iconic rushing landmark of a rural and fairly wild river—despite the hydropower plant creating those falls—and the stretch in Cornwall favored by whitewater kayakers and fly fisherman gets postcard treatment, in part because it rushes under the historic covered bridge in tiny West Cornwall. (Right, looking north along the Housatonic from West Cornwall earlier this spring.)

At New Milford, there’s another dam and below that the Housatonic grows broadly into the manmade Lake Lillinonah—yet another hydropower component—before angling east to provide watery appeal at state parks in the Southbury/Shelton area. The river “defends” one side of the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in Stratford, where Merritt Parkway motorists sometimes get treated to seeking Sikorsky’s helicopters hovering or flying over the river.

But for a long time now, the Housatonic and its watershed have also represented a problem—a significant one defined by environmental concerns and potential public health issues.

The river is contaminated with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a known carcinogen that was released into the waterway from a General Electric transformer plant in Pittsfield, Mass, from 1932 until PCBs were banned by the U.S. government in 1977.

GE and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have long engaged in a tug-of-war about how to address the PCB contamination, and amid that process in 2010, according to an Associated Press story, GE said it would remove the PCBs from the river—reversing an initial position that it was safer to leave the carcinogens buried in the river sediment.

The next potential steps are in the forefront now, as a new EPA proposal “recommends a massive cleanup of PCB contamination from ‘hot spots’ along a 10.5-mile stretch of the Housatonic River from south Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox,” according to a Berkshire Eagle story. (The paper has extensive coverage of the issue on its website.)

The cleanup, according to the Eagle, including removal of the likely cancer-causing chemicals by excavating, dredging and capping sediment in targeted zones, would cost GE an estimated $613 million and require about 13 years to complete.

In response to a Berkshire Eagle query, GE issued a statement critical of the plan but stopped short of a formal rejection.

Why cleanup the GE site and the Housatonic River

Understanding PCBs

The proposed cleanup plan

Public comment, meetings and events

The top two key goals of the EPA proposal are:

  • Reduce the mass of PCBs in Housatonic River sediment and floodplain soil available for exposure and down-stream transport.
  • Reduce the potential movement of PCBs from the river onto the floodplain, from the banks into the river, and from upstream to downstream locations, including the downstream transport into Connecticut.

Public information meetings on the proposed cleanup are scheduled for June 18 in Lenox, Mass., and for June 24 in Kent, Conn.

Meanwhile, the Berkshire Eagle’s reporting has revealed that environmental advocates with stewardship over the river and its watershed have issues with the EPA proposal.

“It's a fairly weak plan,” Tim Gray, the Housatonic riverkeeper and executive director of the Lee-based Housatonic River Initiative, told the paper.  “They're proposing some things that are kind of worrisome. We have time to do the right thing for the river on behalf of future generations.”

“I’m disappointed," said Dennis Regan, Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association, which also has an office in Lee but is based in Cornwall, Conn. “I feel very strongly we have one shot to take toxins out of the river.”

“It’s appalling that after being involved in it for so long, the EPA would present such a weak cleanup,” said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield. “Just to take out a little bit of the PCBs and then cap the river bottom is horrendous.”

According to the Eagle, the proposed cleanup would involve dredging, excavating and removing the PCBs from riverbed sediment as well as flood plain soil in designated zones, followed by capping of “hot spot” areas for 10.5 miles from Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield to Woods Pond in Lenox. The plan would remove 89 to 92 percent of PCBs annually from the most contaminated areas, such as Woods Pond.

Areas farther south would be targeted for a variety of cleanup approaches, including “monitored natural recovery” along the Housatonic from Sheffield through Connecticut into Long Island Sound, the Eagle said..

The EPA plan would require 13 years to complete, but potential legal wrangling could delay the start for a few years, according to agency officials and environmental advocates.

Read more detail in the Berkshire Eagle's news story on the EPA plan, and its followup with environmental advocates.


Housatonic River PCBs Back in News: GE Critical of New EPA Cleanup Plan

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