Eggs and cinnamon toast with Jane Winn

The other day, Jane Winn drove to Lenox from her home in Pittsfield for yet another meeting of the Citizens Coordinating Council — one more citizen hoping to coordinate a better future for the Housatonic River in light of decades of pollution by the General Electric Co.

Winn's not an angel, but when she journeys to these sessions, she brings her harp.

No, not the kind with strings.

"Harping on things over and over, we get more testing," she said.

For almost 15 years, as executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, Winn has spoken up about perceived threats to the natural world. It began when she and others organized to influence plans for soccer fields at Berkshire Community College, which activists felt would harm vernal pools.

They lost that fight, but BEAT took root and has been a player in environmental flare-ups in the Berkshires ever since.

"The difference between being Jane Winn, private citizen, and Jane Winn, director of BEAT, was amazing. As soon as I had the name of an organization, I had a seat at the table," she said.

Environmentalists play the long game, Winn suggested over breakfast the morning after the Lenox meeting at Bob's Country Kitchen in Lanesborough, one of her favorite morning haunts.

Winn was the only one at the eatery who squeezed a laptop in beside eggs or pancakes.

At 60, the long game for Winn began decades ago, growing up on Holmes Road in Pittsfield, downstream of GE's environmental sins. She recalls asking her father once, when she was a girl, why GE wasn't cleaning up the Housatonic. Her dad was typically outspoken. It puzzled Winn that he had no answer this time — and she's been looking for one since.

"I knew GE was partly responsible. I'm not sure why I knew that," she said.

While still in elementary school, Winn and friends formed a group they called Friends of the Housatonic River.

"When I was growing up, the Housatonic River stank to high heaven. You held your nose going over bridges," she said. "It turned interesting colors. You'd get these circles of oil. It was a trash bin. I got a good bicycle out of it."

Winn was a teenager when she joined her first Housatonic River clean-up.

Passage of the Clean Water Act helped the Housatonic, she believes, but the fight goes on — and one of the new arenas is the unglamorous work of the Citizens Coordinating Council.

"Monitoring and data," read an agenda item the other night. That was followed by "post-remediation sampling."

Dry stuff, to be sure. Around 6 p.m., the meeting turned to air-quality data gathered from what's known as Hill 78 to veterans of this issue, but to regular people as a mound of toxic waste about 50 feet from the Allendale School playground.

As a citizen activist, Winn values science, but she treasures people — and the work of ensuring they live in safe places.

"In many ways, I feel like this is exactly what I was born to do," Winn said over her eggs and cinnamon raisin toast. "To be an environmental troublemaker."

She can't help but say that with a smile. As troublemakers go, she's an amiable one. The Winn approach is reason, not volume; science, not stridency.

Winn's route to activism threaded through family obligations and a family business.

Around the time she joined with BCC faculty members Tom Tyning and Tim Flanagan to protect the vernal pools, she had been providing care for her aging parents. Winn and her husband had recently closed The Nature of Things, the science and nature store they ran for seven years in Lenox.

Most people at that time knew Winn from her work in retail. The store asked a lot of the couple, as all retail businesses do, and took its toll.

"I was sick every single Christmas, the whole time we had the store," she said, working until she was near collapse. Old habits being what they are, Winn says that when holidays approach and she's out shopping, she can't help but wonder whether a store has enough inventory.

Though the BCC soccer fields were built, students weren't the only ones who got kicking.

BEAT and its allies moved to new projects and have been successful on many fronts since then. One early victory came when BEAT spoke out against placing a trash transfer station close to Clapp Park in Pittsfield near the Housatonic River.

It took three years to halt the project, which had won permission from the Conservation Commission. "It was stopping something that was clearly illegal," Winn said.

Another kind of win came when BEAT, enlisting the aid of former state Sen. Benjamin Downing, was able to persuade the state Department of Transportation to hire the U.S. Geological Service to redo floodplain maps. That new information means that in times of heavy rain, a place like Pittsfield knows more precisely where it will flood. "You don't want people building in those areas," Winn said.

She believes that's vital in a time of climate change that could bring more rainfall.

Today, Winn oversees an ambitious portfolio of BEAT projects. She and her small team, working on a budget of under $200,000 a year, rally volunteers to pull invasive kiwi, improve wildlife corridors, push alternative forms of energy and pounce on polluters. BEAT staffers are also involved with the Greening the Gateway project that is placing free trees on urban tracts in Pittsfield to reduce energy costs by improving the canopy.

BEAT joined a broad network of activists to oppose the $3 billion Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline proposed by Kinder Morgan. The project, which would have brought fracked natural gas across rural areas of the state, was shelved by the company in 2016.

Next year, another long BEAT project with an ally, the Housatonic Valley Association, will culminate with culvert replacements on Hancock Road in Pittsfield. Swapping out old and inadequate cement pipes will allow brook trout to migrant on Churchill Brook, which feeds into Onota Lake. The roughly $400,000 cost of the project is being paid by a natural resources damages fund related to the GE clean-up.

Winn takes pride in those advances. When asked about setbacks, she falls silent for a moment. She asks to speak off the record, but we decline.

Then she's ready to answer. The worst thing to happen in the years BEAT has been at work, she says, was the election of Donald Trump. The president has no regard for environment, Winn says.

"Facts don't matter these days. I find that very, very hard to cope with," she said. "Both at the federal and state level, they're defunding environmental protection."

But the BEAT, as they say, goes on. The group is outgrowing its space in the Winn family home and is looking for a new headquarters. Staff includes Elia Del Molino, its stewardship manager; Elizabeth Orenstein, education and outreach coordinator; and Judy Eddy, who handles fundraising and other duties. Winn's husband, Bruce, is chair of the board.

Looking around her at the recent CCC meeting, Winn noticed that most citizens on the council are around her age. She hopes to help recruit a new generation to pitch in as stewards to monitor the ongoing GE clean-up. It remains uncertain what shape that will take. The company's appeal of the Rest of River project, which outlines a final cleanup plan for a 125-mile stretch of the Housatonic River from Pittsfield through Connecticut, is pending before the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C. The board heard arguments in June, but has not ruled.

Why should young activists put their shoulders to this particular battle? We asked Winn.

"Because it's a fascinating process and will probably be going on for the next 50 years," Winn said. "This is the future of their landscape." Then she seems to rehearse a pitch. "Get involved. Learn as much as you can. Don't feel overwhelmed by all that's out there."

Will environmental activists be able to muster the stamina to stay engaged?

"I guess my answer is, `We'll see.'"

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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