PITTSFIELD — At a public meeting last Dec. 3 at Lenox High School, several hundred Berkshire residents spoke out in anger and frustration against the General Electric corporation. The reason for their ire is that GE contends that it should not have to fully comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's "Rest of the River" order. The order requires GE to transport out of state a portion of the 600,000 pounds of PCBs that the EPA estimates remain and says must be removed from the Housatonic River. Virtually the entire gathering insisted that the EPA enforce its original decision, issued in October 2016, despite GE's objection to having to transport the toxic waste removed from the riverbed to out-of-state licensed facilities for disposal.
We support the people of our county who desire to live, once and for all, free of PCBs. For way too long, Berkshire residents have had to endure the consequences of GE's half century of willfully dumping hundreds of thousands of pounds of PCBs into the Housatonic River, and of spreading large amounts of PCB-contaminated soil all around the county.
What motivated GE to pollute then is what motivates it to scoff at the EPA's order now: corporate greed, pure and simple. By failing to properly dispose of the PCBs that its factories produced year after year over that half century, GE, a company worth billions, made a cold calculation about the money it saved. Human lives and health never entered into its decision.
Now after another four decades have gone by since the government stopped GE from poisoning our community, GE has made another cold calculation. By redepositing the toxins it has removed from the Housatonic back into landfills along the river, it will save an estimated $250 million in costs associated with the transportation of the PCB-laden soil out of the region.
The people at the public meeting were justifiably incensed that through GE's legal wrangling before the Environmental Appeals Board, the corporation got stakeholders to submit to yet another round of mediation, following one that was aborted several years ago. Wily GE executives thereby won an opportunity to drag out the execution of the EPA's "Rest of the River" order, while hectoring for its preferred and less costly scheme for dealing with the disposal of the PCB wastes.
In their litany of injustices perpetrated by GE, people pointed out that past negotiations with the giant corporation resulted in the creation of the notorious toxic dumps known as Hill 78 and Building 71. They decried the fact that GE, self-servingly, now cites the existence of these dumps as a precedent for its current plan to bury toxic wastes locally. They also questioned why GE lawyers, without any proof, maintain that existing toxic dumps are safe. On top of that, people argued that GE should never have been allowed to cap buried PCBs next to the Allendale elementary school and elsewhere in Pittsfield, a grave error that should not be repeated. Ruefully, we agree.
In addition, we have since learned from a report in The Eagle that the GE legal team resorted to absurd and contradictory arguments in its appeal of the current cleanup order. On the one hand, the team exhibited barely disguised contempt for Berkshire residents when it characterized local opposition to onsite dumping as "parochial" and should be disregarded. The GE team scolded the EPA for seeking to "placate" the community, forcing the EPA to defend in court the relevance of public opinion to its cleanup order.
On the other hand, GE argued before the same court that transporting PCBs out of state could be harmful to some other community, and referred to the trade-off as a "zero sum game." In light of its contempt for the Berkshire community, it is quite a stretch to assume that GE's solicitude for another community is genuine. It certainly never showed the Berkshires any such consideration when it surreptitiously dumped PCBs into the Housatonic and then had to be forced into cleaning up its mess. To its credit, the EPA countered GE's disingenuous argument; depositing the dredged material into federally licensed disposal facilities out of state, the EPA argued, is better for human health than depositing it in newly created and untested landfills where there had never been any before.
Almost no one at the meeting put any stock in reaching a "compromise" with GE through the mediation process. We concur. Given that GE executives have no personal skin in the game, and that the corporation has all the time in the world, and no end of hired legal guns, the see-saw of negotiation would inevitably come down on GE's side. GE has nothing much to lose from open-ended mediation except the cost of transporting PCBs out of state, a pittance to a corporation of its size and wealth, and much to gain in the form of time in which to wear down the community and delay the implementation of the order. On the other side, the community has a lot to lose if it accedes — out of desperation for a solution — to GE's demand for onsite dumping.
TAKING ON GE
It was not lost on the crowd at Lenox High School that Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and Congressman Richie Neal strongly support the community's views. In their emphatically worded letter to EPA on Feb. 8, 2018, the legislators said that "to allow local disposal of GE's toxic waste...would be incompatible with Massachusetts state law and a complete disregard of the affected Massachusetts communities who have been plagued with this corporate pollution for far too long." They insisted that GE must fulfill its commitments, and that the EPA must "uphold its previous finding that any contaminated material removed during the cleanup must be `shipped off-site to existing licensed facilities for disposal.' "
If down the road, GE refuses to fully comply with the EPA's cleanup order, including the transportation of contaminated soils outside the state, we must all stand together, as more than one speaker asserted, and "take on" GE. "Taking on" GE may mean more demonstrations, a lawsuit, a boycott even. The willingness to think in those terms signifies that times have changed.
People in our community and their representatives are more willing than they have been in a long time to do battle with a corporate polluter. They are following the example of the individuals and groups that have been fighting steadfastly for decades against GE. Our neighbors have awakened to the fact that there is power in our numbers and our resolve.
The column is co-signed by Sheila Irvin, chairperson of the Berkshire Democratic Brigades, and BDB Executive Committee members Lee Harrison and Michael Wise.