Environmentalist, canoeist Denny Alsop makes a local stop

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Photo Gallery | Denny Alsop makes a canoe stop in Pittsfield

PITTSFIELD — For environmentalist and canoeist Denny Alsop, the biggest impediment to completing his 250-mile odyssey along the state's rivers has been, well, himself.

"What I really have to watch is my ego," he said at a stop on Monday at Fred Garner Park. "I remember when I did this 28 years ago. I was a young man then. When I'm on the river today, I sometimes still think in those terms. "

At 69, the nimble, affable Alsop is reprising a trip he took across the state at the age of 41. The intent is the same: To raise awareness of the need to keep our rivers clean.

Alsop started his monthlong journey in Sheffield last week. He has been paddling north along the Housatonic, stopping at various points along the river to visit and talk about the river with interested parties.

From the Housatonic, Alsop will proceed to the Westfield, Connecticut, Quaboag, Qinebaug, French, Blackstone, Assabet and Sudbury rivers before finishing up on the Charles River in Boston.

For the past week, he has been paddling along the lower Housatonic, the area dubbed "Rest of River" in a cleanup plan south of Pittsfield that has been mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is requiring industrial giant General Electric to rid the river of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a man-made compound believed to cause cancer in humans and wildlife.

General Electric used PCBs in parts of its machinery for decades until the substance was banned in 1979. The company disposed of the substance into the Housatonic. The EPA has ordered GE to undertake a $613 million cleanup of the river by dredging portions of the riverbed and shoreline. GE is presently fighting this action on various legal, logistical and technical grounds

Alsop had an enjoyable, if exhausting, day at Muddy Brook Elementary School in Great Barrington on Friday, where he spoke to students there about conservation.

"That was fun," he said. But when he began paddling again, Alsop discovered there had been some changes in the course of the river since he had been there last.

"The river had changed a little since the last time I'd been there," he said. "The beavers had built a dam, and rerouted the river, and I ended up dragging my canoe across the grass to another part of the river. I'm still sort of recovering from that."

Alsop's journey takes him, he said, to vistas the experts don't always see."

One thing he's seen is proof that one of the potential solutions forwarded by General Electric is unlikely to work. GE has advocated for a shallow dredging and capping on that stretch of the Housatonic.

But Alsop said he saw evidence of intense beaver activity along the lower Housatonic shoreline. Beavers, he noted, dig several feet into the riverbed and riverside and bring up silt and sludge to create their dams.

"You can see the beavers have excavated several feet into the silt," Alsop said.

Alsop said he believes that GE's scientists are aware of what he calls "the beaver problem.'

He also was also given a letter from Theodore "Tad" Ames, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, to be delivered to GE CEO Jeffrey M. Immelt.

In it, Ames urges Immelt to "truly bring good things to light" — wordplay on a marketing jingle by the company in the '80s — and spend resources on a cleanup instead of attorneys.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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