With an August deadline approaching, Pittsfield’s city council remains divided over a plan to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirements for upgrades to the city’s wastewater plant.
In 2008, an EPA permit regarding acceptable amounts of contaminants in the Housatonic River forced Pittsfield to plan for a drastic overhaul of its wastewater plant, after a failed attempt to challenge the limits in court. In the decade since, little progress has been made. With an August 1st deadline to begin construction on a new plant, the pressure is on the city to find answers. The EPA said in a mid-February letter that it would levy fines against the city if Pittsfield doesn’t break ground this summer.
The EPA Letter to the city, dated February 12th, describes Pittsfield as “a significant contributer of phosphorus to the Housatonic discharge basin”, and declared that in additional to fines, the agency was “prepared to take further enforcement” with the city should it miss the deadline.
At the February 27th city council meeting, Mayor Linda Tyer’s plan to borrow $74 million for the construction of a new plant fell short. Pittsfield has already invested millions in consulting fees and plant designs with the engineering firm Kleinfelder, but a core group of four councilors — just enough to deny the required supermajority for approval — are not convinced.
Councilor Melissa Mazzeo is opposed to the plan, and has her own idea about what the city can do before borrowing the money for the plant upgrades.
“It’s worth asking the EPA for a do-over, essentially sit down at the table with us again, listen to our arguments from nine years ago, why we felt what you were asking was — not that it was just so financially strapping — but some of the things that were being requested seemed unobtainable and possibly unnecessary," said Mazzeo. "And to find out that all those appeals were actually just because we didn’t put in the paperwork in the right format was frustrating to me. And so until I can get that straightened out and have another shot at actually talking with the EPA, I don’t think that we should move forward with this project.”
Councilor Helen Moon is among the seven councilors who support the plan, and was disappointed with the outcome of the vote.
“Last year as a candidate, I watched the city council vote yes, let’s tell President Trump and our state and federal delegation that we want to support the Paris Accord agreement," said Moon. "You know, so- we’re taking this national and international position to say we as a city of Pittsfield want to be environmentally conscious, we want to make positive steps towards protecting our water and our air and you know, our natural beauty from corporations. When we put that kind of pressure on corporations, we have to also step back and put that same pressure on ourselves, and sometimes that’s at the cost of $74 million.”
The February 27th denial of the motion came after an attempt to move on the plan was delayed at the previous city council meeting on February 13th, when Councilor Christopher Connell halted a vote using a charter objection. Mazzeo and Connell were joined by Councilors Donna Todd Rivers and Kevin Morandi in voting against the motion.
City Hall confirmed Wednesday that with the failure of the vote, there can be no further action on the issue until a new spending plan is proposed. With the EPA deadline just over five months away, millions spent on planning, and the prospect of fines looming on the horizon, Pittsfield’s expensive wastewater issue remains unresolved.