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Markey, Warren join voices against GE relying on trucking for removal of toxic materials from the Housatonic

A warning sign about the contaminated Housatonic River.
Josh Landes
A warning sign about the contaminated Housatonic River.

Massachusetts’ two U.S. Senators have joined a chorus of voices calling on General Electric to favor rail over trucking in its remediation of the Housatonic River.

The added pressure on GE comes after the company released a widely derided plan for the removal of toxic materials from the river it polluted with PCBs throughout the 20th century in late 2023.

While lower-level contaminated waste will remain in a controversial new landfill to be sited in Lee, higher-level waste will be removed from Berkshire County entirely. The plan was unveiled in November. At that meeting, Dr. Charles Kenny – the chair of the Tri Town Health Department that serves Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge – described it as premature, misleading, and below the standards set by the Environmental Protection agency, which brokered the cleanup deal between GE and communities along the river.

"The truck figures that are being presented are totally predicated on the idea that the rail staging used will be remodeled existing rail staging, which is located at inconvenient distances from wherever the truck staging or the recipient stating for the material coming out of the excavation is located," said Kenny. "The consideration that new rail staging could be constructed is not in this proposal at all.”

Lee select board chair Bob Jones read a communication from Housatonic Railroad corporate counsel Parker Rodriguez at the meeting that echoed Kenny’s criticisms.

“There is no need for trucks at the locations of the dredging," read Jones. "If these materials were to be trucked, they would have to clear and level an area to use machinery to load it into the trucks. The same machinery can be used to load the material into rail cars if a siding exists. The burden of building a siding is not so much more than the burden of creating a flat level area to load into trucks that it becomes unfeasible. Moreover, Housatonic Railroad would be willing to contribute some track and possibly labor to contribute to the signing construction.”

In late March, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey sent a co-signed letter to GE CEO Lawrence Culp calling on the corporate titan to not heavily rely on trucking when moving the toxic waste out of the Berkshires:

“According to GE’s proposal, trucks will likely move material to the upland disposal facility for nearly all reaches of the river and all types of materials, except for certain sediment from downstream areas that hydraulic pipe can easily move. With a truck-centric focus, the proposal fails to sufficiently consider the efficiency, environmental, public health, and climate benefits of rail transportation. It also ignores both local concerns and recent statements from the state-owned Housatonic Railroad rail line, which expressed interest in working with GE to ensure that the rail infrastructure is able to transport waste material.”

The letter goes on to say that GE’s proposal remains vague and lacks adequate research into rail options.

Local politicians like Western Massachusetts State Senator Paul Mark have also spoken out against GE’s plan.

“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,” Mark told WAMC.

At a March meeting in Pittsfield, the EPA said that trucking would still remain an inseparable part of the cleanup.

“To say that you can remove 100,000 cubic yards of material, both sides of the river, the river itself with a railroad on one side of the river that's active without using a truck- Can't happen,” said Project manager Dean Tagliaferro.

The cleanup is expected to take at least $600 million and 13 years to complete.

In a statement to WAMC, GE said it’s “committed to limiting the number of truck trips, maximizing hydraulic pumping, and continuing to evaluate rail transport, while being responsive to the community’s feedback.”

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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