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EPA briefs citizens on Housatonic River plan process

LENOX — Those who have been waiting for a breakthrough in the process of finalizing a plan for the Housatonic River PCB removal – a process that has dragged on for years – will just have to wait, and wait some more.

Speaking at a recent Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council (CCC) meeting, Environmental Protection Agency’s Jim Murphy explained that the agency is still in talks with General Electric regarding the rest of the river cleanup. He also said that the agency’s long-awaited proposal for remediation of PCB contamination will likely not be ready by the end of the year.

“I won’t even say I’m optimistic that we can have it at the end of the year at this point,” Murphy said, referring to the EPA’s goal to have their proposal out before the start of 2014. “What I can say is that when we do have a framework with GE we will report out to folks as to where we are.”

In May 2012 the EPA put out a status report following meetings with state officials from Massachusetts and Connecticut. “That was an outline of what we thought made sense as far as a remedy for the rest of the river,” Murphy explained.

Getting the two states involved in the discussion is one step in the process, but getting GE to accept the general framework for a remediation plan is another matter.

“EPA thought it made sense to get into discussions with GE as well as the two states to see if we could come to some kind of agreement on the general framework of what a good remedy would be,” said Murphy, “our position thinking that if GE would get on board with the general approach that we have then it may be able to speed things up in the long run.”

“I don’t have really great news,” Murphy told the CCC members and other citizens gathered in the Sedgewick Reading Room at the Lenox Library for Sept. 18 meeting. “I think the good news is that we’re still at the table, we’re trying to push away from the table at this point, I don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen, but we haven’t really run into a showstopper yet.”

EPA awaits BioTech project plan

While the showstopper moment may be a ways off, one potential breakthrough option for the cleanup has already surfaced.

The company BioTech Restorations has pioneered an alternative PCB removal method that involves administering a protein into the river soil to restore bacterial ability to naturally break down PCB molecules.

BioTech has offered to do a pilot test of their method on the Housatonic using their own money, but they must first submit a request to the EPA in the form of a quality assurance project plan (QAPP).

EPA representatives made clear during the recent CCC meeting that they are awaiting the QAPP, a regulatory document the agency must first receive from BioTech before deciding whether or not to approve the company’s pilot test.

“I did speak to Chris [Young, founder of BioTech] last week, and they do intend to do a QAPP,” Housatonic River Initiative executive director Tim Gray said during the CCC meeting. Gray, who the night before presented an overview of the BioTech method at a community gathering in Great Barrington, defended the company and suggested that more communication and cooperation among the parties involved would be helpful.

“Instead of having these attitudes about BioTech and trying to express them to the public as if BioTech is doing something wrong because they’re a little delayed in what they’re doing, instead I think there should be a willing partnership and say let’s do it,” said Gray. “And a little more communication might help between the company and EPA…I think Chris Young is an admirable person, I think his company wants to do good, I think EPA would like to see this happen, and I think a little more cooperation between all parties including BioTech could go a long way to moving this project along.”

According to the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, a member of the Citizens Coordinating Council, the way to move ahead is to push BioTech to submit its proposal (QAPP) to the EPA.

“BEAT believes that Biotech’s technology is promising, but to move the process forward we should be pressuring Biotech to produce a QAPP, not pressuring EPA to drop standard regulatory procedures. Doing the latter (which I don’t believe EPA actually has the authority to do) would also imply that GE could perform without a QAPP,” BEAT’s Bruce Winn wrote in an emailed position statement on the QAPP issue.

For now, until BioTech comes through with its QAPP, and as the EPA continues to negotiate a general framework plan with GE, the fate of the Housatonic River cleanup project remains unsettled.

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