BOSTON — As General Electric plants its corporate flag in South Boston, in a project its says embodies a "global commitment to the environment," activists question the company's commitment to that goal in Berkshire County.
"How more ironic can you get?" asked Barbara Cianfarini, of Pittsfield, a co-founder of Citizens for PCB Removal.
Though remarks at Monday's ceremonial groundbreaking focused on bright outlooks for innovation and job growth, people pushing to address GE's legacy of Housatonic River pollution speak of darker possibilities.
By taking up residence in Boston as a Massachusetts company, some warn, GE may be positioning itself to gain an upper hand in regulatory skirmishes over its duty to remove PCB sediment and soil from the Housatonic River.
At the same time, they are wary of changes within the Federal Environmental Protection Agency with the appointment of Scott Pruitt as its leader. Last fall, the EPA pressed GE on the "rest of river" cleanup, setting out requirements the company is fighting.
GE is challenging the $613 million, 13-year rest of river plan, which orders the company to remove or cap most of the tainted sediment from southeast Pittsfield to Lenox and points south. The company discharged PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, into the river for years until the substance, a suspected carcinogen, was banned in the 1970s.Tim Gray of Lee, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative, said that by moving to Boston, GE could strengthen its hand politically.
"What we're worried about is that GE will be given a lot more power to influence the state DEP and the federal EPA, given that they'll be just doors away from their headquarters," he said.
While Gray doubts that is GE's chief motive in relocating to Boston "that might have been one of their thoughts," he said.
Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, believes the motive was clear.
"GE moved here in order to get a better deal in not having to do as much of a cleanup," she said.
Jeff Caywood, director of headquarters communications for GE, said the company is not backing away from a river cleanup.
"GE is committed to undertaking a comprehensive cleanup of the Housatonic rest of river that fully protects human health and the environment, does not result in unnecessary destruction of the surrounding habitat, and complies with the consent decree," he said, in response to questions Monday from The Eagle.
He said GE filed an appeal on the most recent EPA order because the company believes the agency is not adhering to the consent decree that governs the process.
Nonetheless, Cianfarini said she is worried that GE's move may affect the pace and extent of the cleanup, the next major phase of the company's mandated work to dredge PCB-tainted sediments and soils from the river and its floodplains.
"I'm very concerned about that," she said. "Until we get a solution locked in, the rest of river cleanup is vulnerable."
Other Berkshire County environmentalists feel the same way, she said. "It's a much-shared view by the environmental community. It's not even a stretch. They don't seem to be hiding it that much."
Cianfarini has served with representatives of nearly a dozen environmental groups on the EPA Housatonic Citizens Coordinating Council, which continues to monitor GE's progress on the cleanup.
She believes GE managed to avoid a more stringent cleanup on the Connecticut portion of the Housatonic River. As it stands, that portion of the river will be the subject of what is called a "monitored natural recovery," a process that spares GE a far more costly soil and sediment removal.
"Now that they got what they wanted they're moving to Massachusetts to continue that strategy to negate the rest of river cleanup," Cianfarini said.
Two officials with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in a letter to the editor published Sunday in The Eagle, argue that more should have been done to compel a more thorough cleanup in that state.
Traci Iott, a supervising environmental analyst, and Betsey Wingfield, a DEEP bureau chief, wrote, "The voices supporting a more narrow cleanup prevailed ... it appears that the current debate has lost sight of the big picture."
Cianfarini said she views it as a "travesty" that as GE stands poised to receive significant public investment in its headquarters, it has not been a good corporate citizen. The company is expected to benefit from $145 million in state and city of Boston support.
"Connecticut is disgusted," she said, referring to the letter by Iott and Wingfield. "They got the short end of the stick and now GE is essentially leaving."
"What people forget is that PCBs end up in the ocean," Cianfarini said. "We're fouling our own nest and it's really disheartening that the new political climate is being wiped out by executive orders and a federal cabinet that's actively dismantling our government before our eyes. The EPA can only be as strong as the people leading it. There is a lot of maneuvering that goes on behind closed doors."
Dennis Regan, Berkshires director of the Housatonic Valley Association, questions GE's commitment to a cleanup, given that it is fighting the EPA's order.
"Everybody's wondering the same thing," he said Monday, when asked whether he thinks GE's move to Boston changes the landscape. "We have serious concerns about not having the Housatonic River cleaned up. We feel they should clean up what they left behind. We're still here — and so is the contaminated waste they left here."
Caywood, the GE spokesman, said the company's appeal of the EPA order takes issue with three issues — disposal of sediment, the scope of the remedy and the extent of dredging required to remove PCBs from the river.
He said the company does not believe the agency can order out-of-state disposal of sediment and soil "when there is no environmental benefit, and in fact there are adverse environmental impacts, associated with the out-of-state transport and disposal."
Further, Caywood said the company believes the order isn't clear enough. "The final permit contains vague, open-ended performance standards that leave the door open for future second-guessing," he said in an email.
The company also disputes what it believes is a requirement for additional dredging "that is not required to protect human health or the environment."
An appeals board is expected to take up the case June 8 in a session in Washington, D.C.
Regan said his group wants the scope of the cleanup to grow, not be reduced.
He feels the state Department of Environmental Protection has not been supportive enough. He is among those concerned about changes within the EPA itself.
"We've even lost some more support," Regan said of the EPA shifts under the Trump administration. "It doesn't look good right now."
Gray, of the Housatonic River Initiative, said he is dismayed that a problem he helped identify back in the 1970s, as a college student taking water samples,
"We're still battling the same old issues and GE is putting a huge amount of money into the legal fight" against the cleanup, Gray said. "The dream is that some day they would come back and do the right thing. They should be eco-friendly and clean it up."
Denny Alsop, of Stockbridge, who last year paddled a canoe to Boston to dramatize the Housatonic's pollution, spent time Sunday refreshing the Housatonic River Initiative lettering on his canoe.
"Because they're receiving these tax abatements does not let them off the hook to protect the economy and health of the Berkshires by acting responsibly with their cleanup out here," Alsop said.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.