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Lee residents vote to rescind river cleanup agreement which calls for a PCB dump in town

A lawn sign in Lee, Massachusetts, designed by Reed Anderson of Great Barrington, calls for no local dumps for PCB waste from General Electric.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A lawn sign in Lee, Massachusetts, designed by Reed Anderson of Great Barrington, calls for no local dumps for PCB waste from General Electric.

Voters in Lee, Massachusetts, are choosing a new selectman and weighing in on several ballot questions Monday, including one that would seek to rescind approval of the Housatonic River cleanup agreement. The cleanup includes a toxic waste PCB disposal site in town.

Because the question is nonbinding it is not clear what impact the vote will have.

Lee selectman Sean Regnier is concerned General Electric would sue the town if it backs out of the agreement.

The company had a factory in Pittsfield which used PCBs to manufacture electrical transformers from the 1930s until the 1970s. G.E. polluted the Housatonic River with the toxin and is required to clean it up.

“Do we really want to tear the agreement in half and go out on our own and potentially lose a very long and ugly court battle with a powerful corporation?” he asked.

Regnier said if the town withdraws from the settlement, it would no longer have a say on the specifics of the cleanup.

But others said it is important for residents who never got to vote on the plan, to speak their mind.

Life-long Lee resident Jim Castegnaro, whose backyard is near the disposal site, is voting to rescind. A retired paper mill worker, Castegnaro, points out the agreement was settled in a closed door mediation. It was signed by then Select Board Chair Thomas Wickham in February 2020. It includes $25 million for the town from G.E.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the PCB disposal site in Lee will be designed to be highly protective of human health, but Castegnaro believes the dump is not safe. He is particularly concerned about the risk of breathing in airborne PCBs.

"It's okay to poison my family and my neighbors and our children for blood money from G.E. because it's good for the town,” Castegnaro said. “And they're worried about if we back out of the deal, we're going to get sued by G.E. So what? So what?”

Selectman Pat Carlino, who was part of the closed-door mediation that approved the cleanup agreement, said a vote to rescind won't change anything. Because the question is nonbinding Carlino said it is more of an “opinion poll.”

"The only way something could change it now would be if the court came out and said, 'Ahh, no, you shouldn't have done this,'" Carlino said.

Two environmental groups who oppose the cleanup plan are expected to file an appeal in federal court.

After serving 24 years, Carlino is stepping down from the select board. The three people running for her seat have indicated they are against the cleanup deal, according to the Berkshire Eagle.

Lee residents will also be voting on whether to shift from a representational form of town meeting government to one where every registered resident will have a vote at town meeting.

Updated: May 18, 2022 at 11:45 AM EDT
The headline on this story has been updated.
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