Our Opinion: Foot-dragging by GE will stall river cleanup

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Astronauts may be walking around on Mars before a shovel-full of contaminated dirt is taken from the Housatonic River. General Electric is likely to stall a fair cleanup proposal for as long as possible.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday chastised the corporation in point-by-point fashion for its January rejection of a reasonable EPA proposal to clean up the PCB-polluted river south of Pittsfield (Eagle, March 3). The proposed $613 million restoration project would take until 2029 to complete if it started tomorrow, and it will not start tomorrow or any time in the foreseeable future.

The 132-page document posted by Bryan Olson, EPA's director site remediation and restoration, is notable for its frustrated tone. The EPA took issue with GE's assertion that the EPA has misrepresented the original Consent Degree, a late 20th century document that led to the cleanup of the river through urban Pittsfield. The circumstances pertaining to the remainder of the river are utterly different, and that GE was able to dump contaminated fill into a Pittsfield landfill does not mean it should be able to in southern Berkshire communities along the river.

Mr. Olson got to the essence of GE's opposition to the plan by asserting that the company wants to chop $380 million from its $613 million cleanup bill. A Berkshire landfill or landfills would save it an estimated $250 million. GE is one of the world's most profitable businesses, in part because of the skill of its tax specialists in enabling the corporation to dramatically reduce if not eliminate its federal tax bill. There is no justifying GE's attempt to preserve a portion of its profit margin by watering down the cleanup.

Similarly, GE's insistence on cost certainty is, as the EPA document said, indefensible. GE polluted the river, no one else. If the cleanup costs are higher than projected, it should make up the difference, no one else. GE has no grounds to play the victim.

With GE moving its corporate headquarters to Boston and getting tax breaks in the process, it should act like a good corporate citizen of Massachusetts. That means going forward on a river cleanup plan which, given the concerns of Berkshire environmentalists that it is too soft on the corporation, has probably succeeded in finding a fair middle ground. Unfortunately, there is no reason for optimism that GE will do the right thing by its former Berkshire home.


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