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New England News

Berkshire Residents Express Dismay Over Housatonic Cleanup Plan

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

Today, the public comment period on a controversial cleanup plan brokered by the EPA for the Housatonic River in Berkshire County comes to an end. The response to the proposal from locals has been nothing short of toxic.

The federal agency ushered through an agreement between General Electric and communities along the river for a multimillion dollar, 13-year undertaking to remove toxic chemicals dumped in the waterway by the corporation over the 20th century.

At the virtual public hearing the EPA hosted Tuesday night, Berkshire residents of the communities affected by the deal expressed virulent opposition, desperation and a deep sense of betrayal.

“The EPA, GE and town selectmen have conducted secretive backroom negotiation over a two-year period," said county resident C. Mathias, who echoed the sentiments of many attendees when she slammed the lack of a public referendum on the deal, under which local communities will receive millions from GE — and a new landfill in Lee.

“The EPA is in cahoots with GE and their lawyers, pitted the selectmen of each town against each other using scare tactics," said Mathias. "The least educated from Lee got the short end of the stick, the toxic PCB dump, after you dangled a golden carrot of dollar signs in front of them. Great Barrington no longer gets a dump, but instead a 149-yard park on top of polluted land. Pittsfield gets land donated to them and a takedown of buildings plus $8 million. The citizens that live in these towns did not get to vote on putting a dump in the Berkshires and in their back yards.”

Local leaders framed the agreement as both difficult but necessary, citing the 20-year lapse in cleanup efforts amid legal wrangling. But for residents like Mathias, the outcome has tied together doubts and concerns about local, state and federal leadership with bitter resentment toward GE and its legacy of pollution.

“Governor Baker courts GE to move their headquarters to Boston from Connecticut after they polluted the entire Housatonic River and have over 90 Superfund sites across the United States?" asked Mathias. "GE is not a welcome neighbor. The governor used our taxpayer dollars to subsidize GE so they don’t have to pay any federal or state taxes.”

“Our current Lee officials have made the most devastating, reckless uneducated choice for the history of the town of Lee, Mass," said Anne Langlais, who said she has lived in Lee for most of her life, along with her husband, five children, and 11 grandchildren. “We the people did not get a choice. We the people did not get a vote. We the people have got our constitutional rights trampled upon by the Lee select board with the help and guidance of EPA and General Electric.”

Some of the toxic materials taken from the river would be put in the new landfill on a site close to Lee’s water supply, schools and the river itself.

“Our selectboard member Patty Carlino stated at our representative annual town meeting no action would even be taken until they came before the body of reps for the actual vote on this chemical dump issue," said Langlais. "These continual executive sessions being held by Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the town officials are being used to silence the people and the residents. Our selectman are even considering not allowing our petition article by the people on our town warrant to discuss the proposed chemical dump – again, silencing us by trampling our rights.”

The question of what comes next in a process that has left many feeling double-crossed and muted loomed over the hours of emotional testimony from locals. Lee resident Jim Castegnaro said that his family has over a century of history in town, and that the new landfill would be 2,000 feet from his backyard.

“And if you force this down our throat, we the people are not going to let you do it," said Castegnaro . "We’re going to use all necessary means to stop it. We’ll work with outside environmental groups, clubs and militias to put an end to this nonsense. This is supposed to be the gateway to the Berkshires.”

For more information on how to submit comment to the EPA, click here.

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