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Housatonic River Initiative Continues Appeal Of Rest Of River Cleanup Plan

A man and a boy hold signs in a meeting room
Josh Landes
Protesters Sage Radachowsky and Malcolm Whittaker at the February 2020 unveiling of the EPA agreement for the Rest of River plan.

A lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency over a controversial cleanup plan in Berkshire County is expected to enter federal court.

The Housatonic River Initiative is the citizens group behind the suit, which appeals the Rest Of River agreement between General Electric and communities along the waterway the company polluted in the 20th century.

The plan, made without a public referendum, would establish a new landfill in Lee, Massachusetts – something locals have vociferously opposed.

Tim Gray is with the HRI:

“We're in what's known as the Environmental Appeals Board Court, which has three judges which are EPA employees. And the reason we're in this court mainly is because it preserves our standing for federal court. But being that the EAB, being an EPA court, and the fact that we are, you know, suing the EPA, we expect them to not rule in our favor in that respect.”

Despite that, Gray says it’s far from a wash.

“The EAB has given us two things," he explained. "On our side is that our lawyers asked for oral argument, which it had pretty much appeared to be ruled out. But then they granted it to us, and that's going to take place on September 2nd. We don't know whether it's going to be a Zoom, a video or in person yet, because we haven't heard that back from the EAB Court. We're waiting to hear that. And then if they rule against us, which we expect, as I said, then we have preserved our standing and we will enter into federal court.”

The cleanup would be the river’s first in around 20 years, and the first more than two miles south of the former GE plant site in Pittsfield from which the toxic materials originated. It was agreed to by the governments of Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Sheffield, and Pittsfield, which will receive in total around $63 million from GE as a part of the settlement. The project is expected to take at least 15 years and cost almost $600 million.

At Lee’s annual town meeting in June, residents passed ordinances that sought to exert a measure of control over the agreement – though the legal ability of the town to retroactively legislate over a federal permit is murky at best.

“The town of Lee is unified against this dump," said Gray. "It’s only like, you know, maybe 10 people in Lee that seemed to be OK with this dump. Everybody else, everybody, I mean, is fighting this dump. And we're not going to take it in the town of Lee, and HRI is not going to take it too. You know, you have to remember that our summation of what they're taking out of the river is exactly sort of the same thing that happened on the Hudson, where they're not taking enough out of the river, in my personal opinion, to ever make the river clean. Under the plan, the river will stay contaminated forever.”

After the cleanup plan was unveiled in early 2020, there have been a series of tense, often confrontational public meetings between Berkshire residents and government officials. Last spring, Gray told WAMC at one such meeting in Pittsfield that he had begun to hear people talking about taking direct action if the plan is upheld, like chaining themselves to bulldozers. He says the frustration has only built since then.

“HRI, we decided right from the beginning to take this to the court and try to resolve this in the courts," said Gray. "But there are a lot of people very, out there in Berkshire County, that are mad enough that they might take direct action. I don't know what- I don't know what will happen after the court case, if especially if we lose.”

The HRI is represented in court by Boston’s Brody Hardoon Perkins & Kesten law firm.

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.