In 2015, after years of protests, lobbying, and drawn-out government studies, General Electric Co. was ordered to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Housatonic River, which the company polluted for decades from its plant in the Berkshires.
Now, the divisive plan, criticized by GE as too costly and by environmental advocates as too lax, may be upended by the agency that crafted it: the US Environmental Protection Agency.
In an abrupt shift that comes amid the Trump administration’s sweeping changes at the EPA, agency lawyers said last week that they want to reopen negotiations over the $613 million cleanup order. They have notified surrounding towns and environmental groups that they intend to delay an EPA appeal board hearing set for Thursday, at which GE planned to argue for changes to the plan.
“Although the case has been fully briefed, EPA has determined that a stay of the proceedings at this time is appropriate and necessary,” the lawyers wrote in an e-mail. They said they would seek to postpone the hearing for three months.
Coming after bitter, protracted negotiations, the EPA’s missive shocked many of the groups that for decades have pressed the Boston-based company to remove large amounts of toxic chemicals known as PCBs that its plant in Pittsfield dumped into the river from the 1930s to the 1970s. PCBs, once ubiquitous as coolants and insulating fluids, were banned in 1979.
The environmental groups worry that the agency’s move reflects the new priorities of the Trump administration – that companies should be protected from government regulations and mandated cleanups.
“Looks like Massachusetts is about to become Exhibit A in the Trump administration’s efforts to go easy on polluters,” said Matt Pawa, a lawyer who represents towns that support the EPA’s plan for the Housatonic, including Lenox, Lee, and Great Barrington.
He noted that GE and the EPA already went through mediation, and that the mediator ruled in favor of the cleanup plan.
“As far as I know, the only ‘interested party’ here is GE – neither I nor the state of Massachusetts’ lead lawyer knew anything about such settlement discussions,” before the e-mail from the EPA, Pawa said.
Critics of the move pointed to a directive, issued last month by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, that requires him or his deputy to approve all agency-mandated cleanup plans that exceed $50 million. Previously, regional offices could issue such decisions, as the New England office in Boston did for the Housatonic cleanup in 2015.
Shortly after his directive, Pruitt launched a new task force to make recommendations on “how the agency can restructure the cleanup process, realign incentives of all involved parties to remediate sites, encourage private investment in cleanups and sites, and promote revitalization of properties across the country.”
The task force, Pruitt added, is intended to “reduce the administrative and overhead costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites, including a reexamination of the level of agency oversight necessary.”
Those changes came as the Trump administration has proposed a 25 percent budget cut to the Superfund program, which oversees the cleanup of some 1,300 toxic waste sites around the country.
GE submitted its formal appeal of the Housatonic cleanup plan last year, shortly after moving its headquarters from Fairfield, Conn., to Boston. The industrial giant argues that it should be allowed to dispose of the dredged pollutants in landfills near the river, despite state regulations that require the toxic sludge to be removed from Massachusetts.
GE officials say they should be exempt from state hazardous waste regulations and other environmental rules. They’ve called the government’s “rest of the river” cleanup plan “arbitrary and capricious,” and say it violates the terms of a 2000 settlement among the EPA, the company, and state and local officials.
GE has already spent more than $500 million since the 1990s to clean 2 miles of the river closest to the plant and on related environmental projects in the area, company officials say. But the company acknowledges that contaminated soil still stretches along more than 10 miles of the river, its banks, and its floodplains between Pittsfield and Lenox. The Housatonic runs nearly 150 miles from Western Massachusetts through Connecticut to Long Island Sound.
The company contends it shouldn’t have to remove the dredged soil from the state because it wasn’t required to in the first phase of the cleanup, which was completed in 2006. The out-of-state location hasn’t been designated yet.
Officials at GE declined to say whether they lobbied the EPA to reopen settlement talks, but they acknowledged taking note of Pruitt’s initiative to review costly cleanups.
“Consistent with that initiative, we reaffirmed our previous support to EPA for settlement negotiations with the parties to explore the possibility of expediting a common-sense solution that meets our commitment to a comprehensive cleanup,” said Jeff Caywood, a spokesman for GE. “Negotiations are a part of any litigation.”
After receiving the EPA’s e-mail, Pawa and other opponents of renewed negotiations wrote the agency to object.
“We appreciate the feedback from the parties to this matter,” Nancy Grantham, a spokeswoman for the EPA, replied.
She forwarded a document that showed that Timothy Conway, a lawyer from the New England office, would be appearing before the appeals board, but declined to comment on whether the agency would ask the board to delay oral arguments.
Conway and other officials from the agency’s New England office didn’t return calls for comment.
“Mr. Conway intends to respond to the issues presented by the board,” Grantham wrote.
In the past, however, EPA officials have defended their plan, which they say would reduce PCB levels in the river’s fish by 95 percent over the next 13 years.
“We find those to be acceptable levels,” Jim Murphy, an EPA spokesman based in Massachusetts, told the Globe last year. “We’re getting out of the river what we need to get out to protect human health and the ecosystem.”
At the time, Murphy acknowledged the criticism from both sides and said the agency was mindful of costs in designing its plan. Environmental advocates lobbied for a more ambitious cleanup that would have cost more than $1 billion, he said, while reducing the toxic chemicals in the river’s fish by only slightly more.
Despite their concerns about the EPA’s plan, environmental advocates now worry that the agency will weaken it further.
Pruitt “seems intent on undermining years of work by his own agency,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts River Alliance. “This is incredibly disrespectful to the EPA staff who have worked for decades to get GE to clean up its pollution, and to the people who live and work in that area and deserve a clean Housatonic River.”