Hinds to GE: It's time to make good on Housatonic River
The General Electric Co. is writing a big check — $87 million big — but not to settle the company's environmental debt to Berkshire County.
That brought a lament Friday from state Sen. Adam G. Hinds, D-Pittsfield. After learning that GE will return financial incentives related to its proposed Boston headquarters, Hinds called for the company to act on a standing order from the Environmental Protection Agency to remove suspected carcinogens from the Housatonic River.
"Instead of simply writing a check to reimburse the Commonwealth for $87 million in unused incentives it makes sense to consider reinvesting those public funds in western Mass," Hinds said in a statement.
Action on the EPA's "Rest of River" remedy is on hold, as parties work with a mediator in an attempt to get a cleanup underway and avoid continued litigation.
"It really still felt like we had to be very clear about their commitments in Western Massachusetts," Hinds said in an interview from Boston, when asked about the timing of his remarks.
"This would be a meaningful gesture for goodwill in that process," Hinds said.
GE is returning incentives because the beleaguered company is sharply scaling back its plan for a new corporate campus in Boston's Seaport district.
When former CEO Jeff Immelt gathered with Gov. Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh and other officials to break ground May 8, 2017, the $200 million GE project was to include a 12-story office tower topped with a newfangled "solar veil."
But as a new GE chief executive now works to address a steep slide in the company's share price and to end losses, the company is altering job-creation goals and ditching the planned tower. About 250 GE employees will now occupy space in an adjoining former candy factory. The bulk of the $120 million in incentives provided to GE by the state will flow the other way now. The ground broken for the tower is waiting for something new to rise.
Hinds' idea is for some of the incentive money to head west.
In his statement Friday, Hinds offered a reminder that GE's exit from the Berkshires wounded the region financially.
"Let's not forget that the City of Pittsfield .. [and] the regional economy in the Berkshires was devastated a generation ago when General Electric packed up and left town," he said. "The Housatonic River is still polluted with PCBs and the cleanup effort has been stalled for years."
He noted that the EPA, GE and other parties now "meander through the complicated and unending legal and regulatory process that will ultimately determine what to do with those carcinogenic pollutants."
The company allowed polychlorinated biphenyls to enter the river for decades before the chemical was banned in 1979.
GE has paid tens of millions for cleanup work in the area of its former transformer-manufacturing sites in Pittsfield. But the river south remains befouled by PCBs. A central issue in the mediation concerns where removed PCBs will be buried. Despite the EPA's demand for disposal at licensed sites out of state, the company is pushing for burial in the county.
Though Pittsfield still feels the effects of GE's exit, Boston has benefited, Hinds noted.
"Just three years ago the Commonwealth doled out millions in tax breaks and incentives to entice GE's headquarters to Boston," he said in the statement.
Hinds said that move helped bring prestige and new jobs to Boston, even with the current downsizing from an expected GE workforce of 800 in the city.
"It's about time for our public investment to benefit western Mass, as well," he said.
Recently, the state provided incentives for online retailer Wayfair to open a call center in Pittsfield and to expand its Boston presence.
Hinds said that even with that investment, the region has a right to expect action regarding GE's legacy of environmental degradation.
"This is about GE. This isn't about Wayfair," Hinds said.
At the time of the 2017 ground-breaking in Boston, GE's market capitalization stood at $252.8 billion, making it bigger than the next six Massachusetts-based companies combined. That market cap figure, the value of all its shares, is $87.76 billion today. GE's shares closed at $10.09 Friday, better than the 52-week low of $6.66.
In late 2016, the EPA ordered GE to embark on a $613 million, 13-year project to remove PCBs from river soils and sediments. The company appealed to a Washington court. The EPA largely prevailed in a January 2018 decision by the Environmental Appeals Board, but action is on hold as a mediator explores possible compromise among the parties.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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