With local communities being asked to ante up to hire legal representation for the onslaught of the Rest of the River cleanup, one has to ponder just what they are expecting. Yes, there is going to be turmoil and a bit of havoc for a while, but it’s hard to imagine just what kind of cataclysmic scenario they are preparing for. Some of that anxiety surely emanates from a concerted effort by General Electric, the guilty polluter, cautioning against the potential repercussions of a comprehensive cleanup and trying to temper enthusiasm for a project it hopes to limit and thereby cut its costs. Thus, we hear of the potential placement of three PCB dumps along the Housatonic River banks (which will never happen), the destruction of habitats, disorder in the towns along the river, and the propagandistic motto "Do Not Destroy the River in Order to Save It."
Think about that phrase for a minute. On its face, it’s basically an adman’s pitch, meaningless and full of sound and fury, signifying not much. Of course there will be disruption, some of it substantial. But it will be temporary, and regardless of the level of action, the river will eventually restore itself. Remember the clamor when the Environmental Protection Agency oversaw the reclamation of the river’s first mile and a half? Most of that ended up being noise, and I’m not hearing too many people complaining these days about the appearance and habitat renewal of that section of the river.
To put the cleanup in its proper perspective, one must ponder the immense indifference to nature and selfish disregard for the public GE demonstrated in pouring huge amounts of a used-up, black, toxic substance known as Pyrenol into our river like it was a toilet. No remedial project could ever fully counteract the level of destruction and utter lack of concern for the environment wrought by GE in its deliberate poisoning of the river. And how much further can we "destroy" a river that has already seen such extensive devastation with GE’s huge infusion of PCBs, a history of dumping from paper mills and other sources, and years of neglect. That’s why we’re here, remember?
I can remember attending my first public meeting on PCB renewal in 1986 when I was an aide to a state representative. Displayed on the board were listed the various cleanup options being considered at the time. One of them was "No Action," for which GE had its readied its defense. The company’s PR team has since been able to further hone that term to its current manifestation -- "monitored natural recovery" -- a much nicer sounding version of the same vacuous idea. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but it sounds something like watching PCBs slowly go away by themselves.
Now that the river has gained some ground in recent years, it’s time for GE to finally face up to the responsibility of cleaning up its big mess. I am hoping the EPA sees through the subterfuge of "Don’t Destroy the River" and puts into operation a project whose scope fully recognizes the immense value of the Housatonic River to our future generations.
You and I will never be able to swim the Housatonic River. But when I consider the cleanup of the Housatonic River, first and foremost in my mind are the children who should be able to enjoy this local precious resource long into the future. Not the ladies and gents advocating the "destroy the river" theme who are more concerned that somehow their business income or aesthetic sensitivities might be temporarily disrupted in recovering a natural resource to which many of them otherwise pay little attention. (The Hudson River project includes a Community Health and Safety Plan, overseen by the EPA, to protect the residents and local natural resources. Recreational activities like boating and fishing have continued during the four years of sediment removal there.)
Simply put, now that we have the chance to implement a cleanup, it should be as total and comprehensive as reasonable. No shortcuts, certainly no reduction in action, and nothing less than a full unmitigated commitment for a project that is going to require some sacrifice to implement if it is to succeed. Any PCBs left behind will continue to migrate, pesky little critters that they are, and contaminate the air, water, and habitat, and will insidiously find their way back into the food chain just as they always have. Get rid of them. For our children. And as we’ve seen manifest in the recovery work on the first mile and a half, the river does indeed have a great ability to reclaim itself.
What we do in the coming years will have an impact upon the river and its denizens for centuries to come. I hope the EPA thinks about that when the time comes to begin action on reclaiming this wondrous natural resource.
Richard T. DelMasto has been involved with the cleanup of the Housatonic River for many years, first as an aide to state Rep. Chris Hodgkins and then as a congressional aide for 18 years to Rep. John Olver, during which time he represented the congressman in meetings and events pertaining to the cleanup. He and his five brothers own a home in Housatonic not far from the river.