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Evolving GE remains on hook for Rest of River cleanup, officials say

Lee residents want a better cleanup deal - and town agrees to try (copy)

A sign warns against eating fish and other species taken from Woods Pond in Lenox Dale, because of PCB contamination. The  General Electric Co. and the federal Environmental Protection Agency confirmed Tuesday that GE's decision to evolve into three distinct companies will not change its obligation to complete a Rest of River cleanup.

PITTSFIELD — The General Electric Co. can change its structure — and indeed, it plans to, starting in 2023 — but its corporate evolution doesn’t free it from a duty to remove toxins from the Housatonic River.

On Tuesday, the company announced that it will split its operations into three distinct companies, part of its continued unwinding from the era when former CEO Jack Welch built a powerhouse conglomerate that, for a time, was the most valuable company in the world, based on the value of its shares.

A Boston-based spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that the Rest of River cleanup outlined in February 2020, and made final last December, still would be in effect, regardless of any corporate reshuffling. GE’s obligation to address its history of pollution remains in place.

The company agrees.

An attempt to overturn the EPA permit allowing a PCB landfill in Lee goes to a hearing today before the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C. The proceeding is being conducted by videoconference, starting at 1:30 p.m. The Eagle will provide live updates during the hearing.

“GE remains fully committed to conducting a comprehensive cleanup of the Housatonic Rest of River that protects the environment and the community,” a GE spokesman said in response to questions from The Eagle. “Today’s announcement does not change that.”

Though GE eventually will split its operations into separate companies in the health care, aviation, and renewable energy and power sectors, those changes do not alter the fact that it is obligated by a court settlement to deal with the aftermath of its long release of polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen, into the river and its flood plain.

“EPA’s Consent Decree requiring GE to clean up its PCB contamination in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River remains in full effect and is binding upon corporate successors,” the agency spokesman said. “EPA will ensure that all aspects of the original Consent Decree, and its modifications since 2000, will be implemented by GE.”

GE is expected to work in the coming year to decide which corporate obligations, including liabilities like the mandated cleanup in the Berkshires, a legacy of its former transformer manufacturing business in Pittsfield, will be attached to which new entity.

The Rest of River project is estimated to cost $576 million and be done over 13 years. Already, GE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the pollution it left behind in the region.

Here is a timeline of the process leading to the Housatonic Rest of River cleanup settlement agreement.2000: The U.S. District Court in Springfield issues a decree requiring specific actions for 25 …

The settlement, reached with much official fanfare in early 2020, allows local burial of PCBs, saving GE $200 million to $250 million. But, the permit the EPA issued late last year is being challenged by two groups before the Environmental Appeals Board, the nation’s top environmental court. The groups are the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League.

The court heard oral arguments in the case Sept. 2. The EPA permit allows for the creation of a landfill in a former Lee quarry area. The court has not ruled on the appeal.

When asked by The Eagle when a decision might come, an EPA spokesperson based in Washington said only this: “No further information is available on matters pending before the Board.”

The EPA spokesman in Boston said the agency plans to coordinate with GE to ensure that the Housatonic project advances.

“EPA is committed to ensuring that GE removes and appropriately disposes of PCB contamination from the Housatonic River,” the spokesman said.

Though the EPA and GE await the outcome of the legal challenges, the two parties continue to plan steps that will be taken, once work begins. The EPA’s permit required that, in what the agency said was an effort to step up the timetable of work.

If the two environmental groups appealing the current permit lose their case, they still have the option of taking their complaint to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

To date, GE has submitted required plans to the EPA outlining technical elements of the cleanup now envisioned, including work to sample soils at affected residential properties.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and

413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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