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EPA responds sharply to GE’s opposition to its plan to clean up the Housatonic River

In a sharply worded response to General Electric Co., the US Environmental Protection Agency this week asserted that the industrial giant should consider the public’s interest in cleaning up the Housatonic River rather than focusing on its costs.

Last fall the agency issued a preliminary plan that would require GE to spend an estimated $613 million to remove massive amounts of toxic chemicals from the river, which the company acknowledges it polluted for nearly 50 years.

In response, company officials last month called the agency’s cleanup plan “arbitrary” and “unlawful” and said it violates the terms of a 2000 settlement reached by the EPA, the company, and state and local officials.

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On Monday EPA officials formally responded to the company’s opposition, arguing that the agency’s proposal was “best suited” to clean up about 10 miles of the river between Pittsfield and Lenox. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a GE plant in Pittsfield dumped massive amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic chemicals known as PCBs, into the river.

Bryan Olson, director of the EPA’s office of site remediation and restoration, said the company is opposing the plan “for one reason: to reduce its costs in cleaning up the PCBs.”

He said the company tried to challenge the EPA’s plan by arguing that it “allegedly knows better than EPA how to select a remedy in the public interest” and is “entitled to virtually total certainty and finality in the cleanup, with uncertainties and additional costs all to be borne by the public.”

“None of these claims are justified and should be rejected,” Olson wrote.

GE officials said they are reviewing the EPA’s response.

“GE remains committed to a common sense solution for the Housatonic rest of river that is fully protective of human health and the environment, does not result in unnecessary destruction of the surrounding habitat, and is cost effective,” said David Lurie, a spokesman for GE. “EPA’s proposed rest of river remedy fails to achieve these goals.”

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Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, an advocacy group in the Berkshires, said he appreciated that the EPA was “holding GE’s feet to the fire.”

“Now, if only EPA will go back to demanding GE remove 3 million cubic yards of PCBs from the river instead of just 1 million cubic yards, and stop GE from creating more PCB dumps in our neighborhoods, maybe we will have made some real progress,” he said.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.