The Housatonic's conscience: Tim Gray first wondered what was going on with the Housatonic River shortly after he first moved near it, and learned you shouldn't swim or fish in the river, a warning he'd never heard growing up in Long Island. As a college student in the mid-1970s, he was part of the first testing effort that found PCB contamination in the river, before the EPA and the public acknowledged the issue. Ever since, especially after the founding of the Housatonic River Initiative in 1992, he's been part of the effort to hold General Electric accountable, including the current debate about GE's hopes to deposit contaminants in three dumps along the river. Eagle Correspondent Christopher Marcisz caught up with Gray ahead of another meeting on May 25 at Lee Congregational Church to raise awareness of the ongoing issue.
Q: Where are we in this process?
Right now we're waiting for EPA to finalize their decision about what they deem should be done in the river. Then, when they finish their river if it goes and passes muster it will go out as a final permit, which starts a legal process where citizens have the right to appeal. If that stands and GE and EPA are still arguing back and forth, it would go to federal court in Boston.
Q: Does GE's announcement in January it will move its corporate headquarters to Boston have any impact on the discussion? Is there a fear the state wouldn't want to offend a jobs creator in the heart of Boston?
Yes, of course. GE's influence has always been wide and strong in this PCB fight. They leave no corner unturned as far lobbying and getting people to push their side of the issue — which has been "don't destroy the river to clean it," their motto to scare people into thinking you can't clean the river without doing more harm.
Q: We're now in the middle of a national conversation about water contamination — between the lead crisis in Flint, and the PFOAs in Bennington, Vt., and Hoosick Falls, N.Y., etc. Is the broader conversation helpful in terms of the PCB cleanup process, or does it make it feel like yesterday's news when there are new problems to face?
The bottom line is the river is still one of the most highly polluted PCB rivers in the country, if not the world. And the PCBs in the river are one of the top toxins in the food chain. They're killing wildlife, we find them in orcas, dolphins, seals, polar bears, fish in the ocean, mink in the Housatonic, organisms at the bottom of the river. The evidence started to be gathered as early 1936 and has gone on, and there's enough information out there to know this river is in trouble. One generation has to stand up and say, "Hey, we'd like to get this clean. You made billions of dollars in the transformer business, why don't you help clean up and restore this to the best of your ability?"
Q: How would you rate media coverage?
There's been a lot of things through the years The Eagle has not covered in terms of things going on in Pittsfield or at the sites. We hope The Eagle will think this through and realize that cleaning the river is a good thing and people need to band together and push for the best possible cleanup we can get.
Q: After 40 years of this fight, are you optimistic? How do you keep your spirits up, or is this a Sisyphean task?
This battle that my group and myself have taken on for many years is all about the river, and all about our grandchildren and the Earth. The bottom line is this is a major public health issues. All across the world people are working to clean up their rivers from PCBs, and I'm optimistic because we've made a difference since we've been working on this problem. Right now, the EPA is ready to issue another order, and although we'd like to see it stronger than it is, at least we're heading in the right direction. And the first two miles in Pittsfield that have already been cleaned up is a real success story. The bugs are doing better, the fish are doing better, the banks of the river — which everyone was worried about — have come back with native species. It is turning into a nicer stretch of the river than it was when it was bubbling PCBs. So optimism is always with me.