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On Earth Day, Division Among Berkshire County Environmental Groups Over Housatonic Plan

A man and a boy hold signs in a meeting room
Josh Landes
Housatonic River Initiative protesters Sage Radachowsky and Malcolm Whittaker at the EPA announcement of the new cleanup plan in February

The 50th anniversary Earth Day in Berkshire County came as local environmental groups find themselves on opposite sides of a plan to continue a long-delayed cleanup of the Housatonic River.

Tim Gray is the executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative.

“Earth Day means to try to clean up the environment to the best of our capability and to focus on all of those things that are hurting our environment and try to find better ways to clean that right up,” Gray told WAMC.

His environmental group has launched an outspoken protest of the new EPA-mediated plan to clean up the waterway that runs through Berkshire County all the way to the Long Island Sound.

“Unfortunately on this Earth Day, we face a toxic dump down in the lower part of [the] Woods Pond area, and it’s going to hurt people’s lives and it’s going to hurt their homes," said Gray. "And no toxic dump should be built next to the entrance of our state forest.”

The compromise between corporate polluter General Electric and communities along the riverwas announced in February, ending years of litigation that has prevented further action on the river’s cleanup since the turn of century. It would see a massive public works project and tens of millions of dollars go into removing toxic chemicals known as PCBs from the Housatonic – as well as the establishment of a new toxic waste dump in Lee. Gray and the HRI are bitterly opposed to both the new dump and the possible outcome of the proposed years-long cleanup. They endorse exploring chemical remediation of the river instead.

“This thing that everybody signed on to takes – we’re not even sure of the exact number – but maybe a quarter to a half of the PCBs that in the river system," said Gray. "And it’s going to leave it contaminated probably forever if they go ahead and leave all these PCBs in the river without getting rid of them. So it makes more sense to take a pause and think about it and find better ways to do it, and they exist.”

But another local environmental group – the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, or BEAT – says it’s more confident than ever that the plan is the right way to go.

“Actually, we’re doing a webinar tomorrow night on why we think the settlement is such a very good idea," said BEAT Executive Director Jane Winn, speaking to WAMC Wednesday. “If the process had gone on, we believe we could have ended up with one to three dumps in Berkshire County, with at least one of those being high level, and we’ve prevented that. The only dump would be a low-level dump, which in our view is an improvement over what we think would have happened.”

Winn says the new plan is an improvement over a 2016 proposal that BEAT appealed.

“We’re getting a hundred acres more cleanup rather than just capping in the river, and if you went back and accepting the previous permit, you’re accepting a 100-acre unlined only partially capped dump that’s actually in the river, so we really think that this is a substantial improvement over what we would have gotten,” she told WAMC.

The EPA expects to submit a draft permit on the proposed plan by Memorial Day, after a period of public comment and meetings.

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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