LENOX DALE — Congressional challenger Alex Morse said Tuesday that the Housatonic River cleanup settlement doesn't do enough to hold General Electric accountable.

"In speaking with those who are in favor of the settlement, there is a common belief that this is the best offer that they will get, that the power and influence of GE is so large that failing to act now may mean a better deal will never come," said Morse, the mayor of Holyoke and primary challenger to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. "But, the people of Berkshire County have earned so much more than toxic dumps in their backyard."

Morse made the comments during a visit to Lenox Dale, where he spoke at a news conference along with community members.

After years of wrangling, a February deal required GE to clean up polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) the company released into the Housatonic River for decades, but one group involved in negotiations opposed the deal because GE was allowed to store low-level PCB sediment at a new landfill in Lee.

The Housatonic River Initiative now finds an ally in Morse. As a nonprofit, the group doesn't endorse candidates but said it was pleased that Morse "did his homework."

While the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 had called for out-of-state disposal, GE, which initially proposed to have three Berkshire landfills, successfully appealed that demand with the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board. Rather than risk delays from further appeals, the EPA entered a mediation process in 2018 involving GE and officials from Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington, Sheffield and Stockbridge, leading to the February agreement.

Under the agreement, sediments with PCB concentrations over a federal threshold of 50 parts per million would be sent out of state, leaving an estimated concentration of 20 to 25 parts per million at the Upland Disposal Facility. That concentration is low enough that a cap would not be required, but the EPA has mandated that the facility will have a double liner that it assures is "protective and safe," a representative said.

Proponents, which included the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, called the deal a big step to counter an urgent problem, but Housatonic River Initiative leaders say they feel let down by the EPA.

"My group doesn't believe that we should be encouraging a dump in somebody else's neighborhood," said Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative. "What we should be doing is treating the PCBs."

Cindy Mathias, a Lee resident, was concerned that the landfill near October Mountain State Forest would cause health issues, especially if there is an accident during the 15-year cleanup effort set to begin in 2023.

"They put it on Lee because Lee happens to be the working-class town," she said.

Morse also leveled familiar charges that Neal doesn't speak with constituents, hasn't endorsed the Green New Deal and doesn't turn away corporate money. Neal has received $86,500 from GE's political action committee over the course of his career, Morse said.

"GE has fought cleaning up this river for years, and they're agreeing to a deal that allows them, in my opinion, to do the bare minimum," Morse told The Eagle. "We have to hold corporate polluters accountable, and we don't have a congressman right now who is taking opposition to those interests."

In a statement to The Eagle, Neal's campaign hit back, claiming that Morse was playing politics with an issue that locals have fought for decades to resolve.

"This was an agreement negotiated by local town officials over many years, so it's ridiculous that Alex Morse is chasing a headline by telling local electeds what to do now," said Kate Norton, a Neal spokesperson.

Norton added that U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, who co-sponsored the Green New Deal, spoke favorably of the deal and that Neal has championed the GREEN Act included in the Moving Forward Act.

Neal, Markey and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had, in 2018, asked the EPA to stick to out-of-state disposal.

Gray said the "worst part" of the deal was that Lee residents didn't get to weigh in. This year's twice-postponed Lee town meeting will include a citizens' petition to back out of the deal.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.