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Critics of EPA Housatonic cleanup highlight risks posed by extreme weather

Just a week after two Housatonic River nonprofits challenged the EPA's toxic waste cleanup plan in federal appeals court, about thirty people from Berkshire County held a protest against the plan.

General Electric, which dumped PCB-laden oil into the river, is responsible for cleaning it up. The EPA's cleanup plan includes a PCB disposal site in Lee, Massachusetts.

The protesters came from Becket, Great Barrington Lee, Lenoxdale, Tyringham, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. They first gathered on a bridge over the river leading from Lenoxdale to Lee.

Lee resident Clare Lahey directed the crowd to walk across the bridge and follow a path downstream to the Woods Pond Dam.

"When we get down there, we are going to meet a river man who is going to emerge and tell you what this is all about," she said.

The 'river man' was 76-year-old Denny Alsop of Stockbridge. He joined the crowd at the dam site, portaging a canoe over his head. He had just paddled upstream to draw attention to the condition of a canal next to the dam — a canal that he said should be an escape valve in a flood, but neither water nor his canoe can get through it.

"It's plugged," he said. "It should be 25 feet wide and eight feet deep and it's all filled with masonry. In case of a flood, that's going to be a disaster."

Especially, he said, because PCB-laden sediment would be carried by flood waters. He and others at the protest are concerned about the impact of climate-related extreme weather events.

PCBs or Polychlorinated biphenyls in the river came from a now-closed General Electric factory upstream in Pittsfield, which used the chemical compound to manufacture electrical transformers from the 1930s until the 1970s. Congress banned them because of their toxicity in 1979.

PCBs are a probable human carcinogen and can have "significant toxic effects in animals," according to the EPA.

In a statement GE, which owns the Woods Pond Dam, said the clogged canal is not part of the dam—and the company has an EPA-approved plan to monitor.

"The dam condition, based on Mass standards, is “satisfactory,”" the statement said.

Protesters also spoke against the plan to put a PCB dump behind them, above the river, in Lee.

Marc Manoli, of Sheffield, owns a business in Lee. He wore a huge skull mask with the words, "Stop GE."

Gesturing from the river up to the hill where the disposal site is planned, he said, "I appreciate being here today to see the foolishness of taking and dredging from here to put it there in a plastic bag, that's certainly going to fail."

He was referring to the planned disposal site, which will be engineered with a double lining to safely secure river sediment with lower concentrations of PCBs, according to the EPA.

After the protesters disbanded, Gail Ceresia, of Lee, pointed out a female snapping turtle coated with a dusting of sand.

"She was just up there laying her eggs," Ceresia said, pointing to the slope above the river. "This whole site is full of sand and gravel where GE is proposing a dump."

Back at the bridge, upstream from the turtle, the distinctive call of the Green frog was heard—like a single pluck of a banjo.

Nearby signs from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health warn people in Spanish and English not to eat fish and animals from the river.

"Do Not Eat, No Coma," the signs read, "Fish, Frogs, Turtles, Wood Ducks and Mallards from this River Contaminated with PCBs."

Corrected: June 15, 2023 at 2:32 PM EDT
The original version of this story stated protesters were focused on the condition of Woods Pond Dam. This story has been updated to highlight their concern about the impact of extreme weather on the canal next to the dam.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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