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Pittsfield Joins Rest of the River Cleanup Effort

Jim Levulis

Pittsfield has formally joined five other Massachusetts communities in an effort to seek retribution and cleanup of the Housatonic River contaminated by harmful chemicals.

In a nearly three-hour meeting, Pittsfield city councilors approved the spending of $10,000 to join with five other communities in the so-called “Rest of the River” cleanup. The group consists of Sheffield, Great Barrington, Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge. The 6 to 5 vote approves an agreement that the communities will be represented by the Pawa Law firm in negotiations with General Electric and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Housatonic River. Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi passionately supported the agreement.

“A six-community consortium is going to have a lot more prospect in success,” Bianchi said. “I think we are all of one mind that we have to move forward together.”

Until the 1970s, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were dumped into the Housatonic River by General Electric. Now GE is tasked by the EPA to remove the contaminated sediment. PCB’s are believed to cause cancer in humans, and have other detrimental affects to wildlife. Councilor Barry Clairmont was one of the five who voted against the proposal. He raised about a dozen questions about the three-year contract including uncertainties as to how a potential reward from GE would be divided considering Pittsfield is home to 38 percent of the contaminated area.

“I think you will find disagreements,” Clairmont said. “Without that provision in there of how to resolve it, each community I picture jockeying for their own position.”

TheBerkshire Regional Planning Commission will serve as the facilitator between the municipalities and the Pawa Law Firm. The six communities will contribute a total of $60,000 to Pawa for 114 negotiation hours with GE and the EPA. In April, the law firm won a $236 million settlement for the state of New Hampshire against ExxonMobil, after a lawsuit against oil companies that added harmful chemicals to their auto fuel. The EPA is not expected to come out with the cleanup details until next year. Even then, the specifics are up in the air in regard to the type of work that will occur. It could take more than 50 years to complete with GE providing hundreds of millions of dollars or nothing at all. Regardless, Councilor Kevin Morandi says approving the agreement allows Pittsfield to be part of that discussion right from the beginning.

“For $10,000 and with the other towns pooling in the money also, we can get to a starting point now and get to that table,” said Morandi.

Councilor Melissa Mazzeo says there’s no sense in nitpicking a legal agreement that has already been reviewed by attorneys from five other towns and passed on. Clairmont says the agreement should’ve been at least tabled for more discussion or sent back for clarification.

“We just don’t have the answers at the moment,” Clairmont said. “The right people weren’t here in the room to give us the those answers.”

Bianchi explained why no one from the planning commission or the law firm attended the meeting.

“Pawa isn’t engaged yet,” Bianchi said. “We felt that our staff had been engaged in the process and we were able to handle that.”

A clause allows amendments to the agreement, but requires a unanimous decision from all the municipalities. This concerns Clairmont especially when it comes to potential costs down the line.

“If the communities disagree we can always get out of it,” Clairmont said. “That’s great, but our money is essentially lost at that point.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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