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Echoing Berkshire County locals, Western Mass. politicians call for GE’s toxic waste removal plan for the Housatonic to hinge on rail, not trucks

Berkshire County waterways, like the Housatonic River pictured here, were swollen from heavy rain Monday.
Josh Landes
A branch of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Western Massachusetts legislators are locking arms behind a call for General Electric to use rail — not trucks — to transport higher-level toxic waste from the Housatonic River out of Berkshire County.

General Electric dumped toxins into the county’s main waterway from a Pittsfield plant over decades in the 20th century. While the first two miles of the river south of the dumping were remediated over 20 years ago, the remainder of the Housatonic remains full of cancer-causing chemicals that sit out in the open to this day. As part of a controversial cleanup plan brokered between GE and communities along the river, the company held a meeting to present a plan to remove the most contaminated materials from the river out of the Berkshires in November. Locals like Stockbridge select board member Patrick White were outraged that it heavily favored trucking over rail.

“Approximately 50 years ago, GE laid off my dad, along with tens of thousands of other people and put this county in a depression, and the people of Berkshire County lifted themselves up out of that depression, and we built a tourism economy and a service economy," said White. "And if you think we're going to trust you not to wreck that economy over the next 20 years as you put all these trucks over our roads past Oak and Spruce and Tanglewood and the Red Lion Inn, tens or dozens or 50 trucks a day, you have another thing coming.”

Now, legislators are amplifying calls for a solution that favors rail over trucking by publicizing their support for the plan and urging the EPA to back it as well.

“Everything I'm hearing from the communities from the towns, even from a meeting I had with Housatonic Railroad, GE is prioritizing saving costs- And that might be what's best for GE, but what seems to be better for the community is to reduce the wear and tear on the roads, reduce the amount of trucks driving through these neighborhoods, it would reduce the noise, reduce the smoke coming out of exhaust pipes, and focus on using rail as much as possible," said Democratic State Senator Paul Mark of the Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire district. “No one’s telling anyone, build a bunch of new tracks to cover every single inch of the area and do what's not practical- But wherever it is feasible, wherever it is realistic, and wherever it is clearly the better option to do it, and not think about the bottom line of a really big corporation that is responsible for a lot of this damage, and apparently is trying to get out of that responsibility.”

“Well, I think rail is the only option to make it fair to all the communities impacted and the people who live in those neighborhoods where the truck routes are going to be going," said fellow Democrat State Representative Smitty Pignatelli represents the Southern Berkshires on Beacon Hill. “We’ve got to do whatever we can to get GE to change their mind, and I think the EPA has been very supportive of the rail concept. It's not going to eliminate trucks, but it's going to be dramatically a reduction of truck traffic. And if we approach this thing the right way, it's going to lessen the impact environmentally and practically for these neighborhoods that the trucks will be going through.”

Democratic Congressman Richard Neal of the 1st district also backs the rail solution.

Since it was announced in early 2020, much of the controversy over the cleanup plan has been focused on the new landfill for lower-level contaminates it will bring to the town of Lee. Critics say it poses a health risk to the surrounding community and that it will torpedo the town’s property values. Mark says that since he took over his district in 2023, constituents have focused their concerns on how to transport the more toxic materials out of the county.

“The overwhelming communications that I've received have been about this part of it, is, if it’s going to happen, let's make sure it's happening as safely as possible, with as little impact and as much mitigation as possible,” he told WAMC.

For his part, Pignatelli – noting that a series of legal challenges to the landfill plan have failed in court – says it’s time to move on.

“When you go to a judge and say, no landfills in Berkshire County, and the response is, well, you've already got one called Hill 78 in Pittsfield that they agreed to 25 years ago," Pignatelli told WAMC. "So, I think it was an uphill battle to begin with. The towns fought the good fight, and I think we're going to get some better things out of it if we approach this thing and get it on rail instead of trucks. And I tell you, everybody will be a winner.”

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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