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EPA Unveils New Housatonic Cleanup Plan For Berkshire County

A man and a boy hold signs in a meeting room
Josh Landes
Protesters Sage Radachowsky and Malcolm Whittaker

Reaction is mixed today after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement to carry out a new cleanup of the polluted Housatonic River.

An overflow crowd packed into the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum on the shores of Woods Pond for the announcement. The body of water is east of Lenox proper, with October Mountain State Park stretching out for miles on its eastern shore. The Housatonic River empties into Woods Pond, and for years, the waterway filled it with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, generated for decades by General Electric at its Pittsfield plant, starting in the 1930s. The chemicals do not naturally break down and have been linked to cancer and other health risks. They were banned in 1977.

“Today we’re all here together to present you the fact and logistics of the biggest public works project the Berkshires have seen in 150 years," said 4th Berkshire District State Representative Smitty Pignatelli. “Not only that, but we’re here to announce the facts of the biggest environmental cleanup in Berkshire history. In fact, some have said that this is the Boston Harbor Cleanup of Berkshire County.”

In 1998, GE reached an agreement with local, state and federal bodies to rehabilitate the first two miles of the Housatonic in downtown Pittsfield. GE began carrying out that cleanup in 2000 by dredging the contaminated soil on the riverbed in downtown Pittsfield – a process the EPA says is complete. The cleanup of the rest of the Housatonic – which flows south of the Pittsfield plant all the way to the Long Island Sound – is unfinished.

“Today marks a major turning point in the decades-long attempt to bring about a cleaner and healthier Housatonic river," said EPA New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel. He said the plan emerged from over a year of mediated negotiations between a host of stakeholders in the cleanup.

“Let me say at the onset that the mayor of the city of Pittsfield, the town leaders of Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and Sheffield, The State of Connecticut, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team – or BEAT – and Jeffrey Cook deserve enormous credit for the courage they’ve shown to actively shape an agreement that will bring a cleaner, healthier river,” said Deziel.

Cook is a local attorney and a member of the Citizens Coordinating Council.

The plan calls for GE to immediately start work on the new effort in coordination with the communities along the river, as well as paying Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Sheffield, and Pittsfield a combined $63 million. It calls for high-level contaminants to be removed to out-of-state landfills, and the establishment of a new PCBs landfill in Lee.

“This appeared to be at one time an intractable problem," said Congressman Richard Neal of the 1st Massachusetts district. “I think the desire here is to work with everybody that’s here in hoping to bring about a new approach and a new day to bringing a solution to this saga that has gone on for decades.”

Fellow Massachusetts Democrat and U.S. Senator Ed Markey was also on hand.

“It’s a settlement that supports health and restoration and sustainability," said Markey. "It’s a hard-earned agreement that has engaged multiple communities, offers a measure of justice for past wrongs, and ensures the Housatonic River is enjoyed by future generations, not just through the history books.”

Local leaders made it clear how much pain had gone into the decision.

“When the Five Town Committee known as the Rest Of River Municipal Committee formed, it was for one reason: to eliminate the threat of another PCB landfill in Berkshire County," said Lee selectboard member Pat Carlino. “At one of our earliest meetings, I made the statement that I will chain myself to a fence before a backhoe comes rolling in. Passionate, yes. Realistic, no.”

She said the decision to bring a landfill into Lee was the hardest decision she’s made in over two decades of service to the town. The cost of further litigation with GE and the risk of losing to the company in court – as well as the possibility of another plan that would mean up to three landfills in the county – informed the committee’s choice to embrace the compromise.

“The location of this landfill in the farthest northwest corner of the town of Lee, 1500 feet away from the river, is currently a heavily disturbed industrial site close to two preexisting municipal landfills and is by far the best location for this proposed upland facility site,” said Carlino.

Jane Winn, the Executive Director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said the agreement was the best opportunity for the county’s environment and wildlife.

“Right now, there is no containment," said Winn. "PCBs are spreading to the air, the water, the land, and up the food web. This agreement requires the removal of 100 acres more of PCB contamination than the 2016 permit that we appealed.”

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said that the plan would call for the cleanup of residential sites in the city of around 43,000, “and will yield multiple investments that will support the ongoing revitalization of our city, and specifically Tyler Street, as well as future economic development in our city." 

"As all of you know," the mayor continued, "We are rebuilding our city after a post-industrial decline and the city is a component of that.”

The agreement calls for GE to donate land to Pittsfield, and to make improvements to its existing properties in the city.

Pignatelli ended the conference by calling on community members to attend a series of public meetings intended to solicit input from locals.

But one group of protestors broke into jeers at the meeting’s end after not being given a chance to speak.

“This is symbolic of the entire process!” yelled Sage Radachowsky.

“If all you suits would have a dump next to your house, you’d be on our side!” yelled Tim Gray.

Gray is the executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative. He says that the citizens’ advocacy group –founded in 1992 – pulled out of negotiations over the cleanup plan two weeks ago in protest of the new PCBs landfill. They came out in force on Monday with signs bearing slogans like “A Toxic Dump Is Forever” and “$50 Million For Bribes, Not $5 For Remediation.” Gray accused the groups that agreed to it of going behind the backs of Lee residents.

“They want people to take their wells offline that are live around where they want to build this dump," said Gray. "Why are they asking for that? Because it’s a protection so if the dump ever leaks, they don’t have a bunch of people who have chemicals in their wells. Absolutely ridiculous.”

He said the HRI was for much of the agreement, but found the dump to be a step too far.

“There’s studies out there that show if you live near dumps, you are susceptible to many diseases that you don’t get if you live out in a clean area,” Gray told WAMC.

Earlier in the meeting, EPA Regional Administrator Deziel acknowledged both the group’s presence as well as its contributions to decades of cleanup efforts.

“We may know that the Housatonic River Initiative was also very much involved in the cleanup and the mediation discussion that got us to this milestone,” he told the assemblage.

Gray says that the HRI wants to see the river treated and the contaminants carried far away from Lee. He faulted the town’s leadership that embraced the landfill solution.

“They crap on our part of Lee all the time, these selectmen," said Gray. "We’re taking them on now. They should never have done this. It’s dollars for dumps.”

He says thousands have contributed to the HRI’s mission, and that the news of the landfill has seen its ranks swell.

Claire Lahey of Lee is one of those new members.

“We live right on the river," said Lahey. "We have a dirt cellar. It’s been the family home since 1910, built in 1840. We’ve had three or four instances of cancer in that house, and I’ve been especially concerned since I’ve heard that they’re airborne, so it sounds like, oh, I should be really excited that maybe they’ll do something right away – but the thing is, we’ve been sitting there for 20 years since GE could have cleaned up this up and not left us exposed for another 20 years.”

The public meetings on the new cleanup plan for the Housatonic River are February 19th at Lee High School, February 20th at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, and at Herberg Middle School in Pittsfield on March 5th.

For more information on the agreement, click here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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