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Tribe seeks Housatonic River restoration grants from settlement

KENT, Conn. - The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's Environmental Committee is seeking grants from a $9 million General Electric settlement fund for environmental and public safety projects at the tribe's reservation on the Housatonic River.

The $9 million Natural Resources Restoration Project is part of a $250 million settlement GE signed in 2000 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts to clean up toxic PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls - from its Pittsfield, Mass., plant and two miles of the river downstream.

An additional $15 million was added to the settlement to be shared by Connecticut and Massachusetts to address damages to natural resources in the Housatonic River downstream from the initial two miles, extending through Massachusetts and into Connecticut. Connecticut's share has since grown to around $9 million.

Tribal Councilor Joe Velky Jr. and member Chuck Kilson have submitted five grant proposals they say will clean up the river bordering the tribe's 400-acre reservation, restore and enhance the reservation's environment, and provide public safety both to tribal members and members of the public, who regularly pass through the reservation on a town road that extends off both ends of the tribe's land.

The Housatonic - from the Algonkian usi-a-di-en-uk, translated as ''beyond the mountain place'' - was a pristine waterway falling almost 1,500 feet along its 150-mile course from above Pittsfield, Mass., to the Long Island Sound, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Schaghticoke and other Northeast woodlands tribes who lived along the river historically used it as a highway down to the ocean where they spent the summers fishing. From the 1930s until the mid-1970s, GE dumped tons of PCBs into the river from its manufacturing plant in Pittsfield. Congress banned PCBs as carcinogens in 1977, but by then the entire river was contaminated.

The contamination is most concentrated behind the river's hydroelectric dams. STN's most ambitious grant proposal calls for dredging the river sediment behind Bull's Bridge, a hydroelectric dam just south of the reservation. The GE settlement excluded any dredging below the Pittsfield area, Velky said.

''But the environmental committee is most concerned with contamination exposure. We're concerned with the condition of the entire river, but we're most concerned with the status north of Bull's Bridge, of course, the river reach next to our reservation. Tribal members' use of the river has become practically nonexistent because of the fish nonconsumption index,'' Velky said.

Velky acknowledged that the proposal is not likely to win approval under the GE settlement fund, but he wants the state Department of Environmental Protection to act.

''The DEP is, after all, the trustee of our reservation,'' Velky said.

Another proposal seeks funds for a guardrail where the road's edge is dangerously close to the water, and also to block access to alcoves where people illegally dump garbage into the river. The committee asked the town to support the guardrail proposal, but ''we were told that the road is a town road and the town will take care of it. So we shortened the guardrail proposal to reservation property only,'' Velky said.

Kilson, a volunteer firefighter for 24 years, proposed a dry standpipe on Schaghticoke Road to provide an accessible supply of water from the river for the town's fire department to use in case of fire in the area. The 400-acre reservation - all that remains of 2,500 acres that were put aside for the tribe by the colonial government in 1736 - is located on a forested mountain where serious fires have erupted over the years. The most recent was in 2002, when a 20-acre fire thought to be under control crawled underground and re-ignited over 400 acres, burning for five days.

''The fire came within 200 feet of the one of the residences on the reservation and at one point threatened the reservation cemetery. There was significant injury to the environment and specifically to the timber rattlesnake dens on the reservation,'' Kilson said. The firefighters were hindered by the long distances needed to get water, Kilson said. The Kent Volunteer Fire Department has offered its support for this project, Kilson said.

The committee has proposed a ramp to the river for boat launching, fishing, and access for disabled tribal members. Currently, the only easy access to the river is at a place where an old tribal cemetery was flooded in 1905 when the Bull's Bridge dam was built.

''On July 29, 1905, the Litchfield Enquirer reported that tribal members were removing bodies from this area because of the opening of the new hydroelectric dam. Tribal members were able to move some of the bodies before the high water reached the cemetery, but not all the bodies were removed. So this area should not be disturbed. We still consider it to be a burial ground of our ancestors,'' Kilson said.

The proposed boat ramp would be at the south end of the reservation and made of gravel, so that no soil or sediment would be removed.

The final proposal is for a study of waterfowl and migratory birds and the restoration of bird habitat on the reservation. Tribal members have been alarmed at the dwindling numbers of woodcock and ruffed grouse over the years, Kilson said.

''You just don't see these birds anymore. I hunt up here every year and this year the hunters were remarking on how they used to be abundant and thriving; you'd walk through the woods and the birds would just take flight all around you,'' Kilson said.

The bird study project would engage the help of the DEP's Wildlife Division of Ducks Unlimited to guide tribal members undertaking the work. The project would include PCB testing in ducks and the restoration of ruffed grouse habitat that was destroyed in the 2002 fire, Kilson said.

The approved grant proposals will be announced in March.