Roger Martella, GE's cleanup man: 'Everything is compromise'
LENOX — Willing to listen. Tough, but understanding. Responsive.
That's what people inside a yearlong mediation over the Housatonic River PCB cleanup are saying about Roger Martella, director for environment, health and safety for the General Electric Co.
"I will say this is the first time I've ever negotiated with GE, but I felt they were fair. I felt they were responsive," said Pat Carlino, a Lee Select Board member.
Steve Shatz, of Stockbridge, joined Carlino in representing the interests of river towns. He said that after years of wrangling between the company and parties pushing for a thorough cleanup, a shift within GE propelled the last-ditch mediation.
A settlement announced Monday widens the extent of the planned Rest of River cleanup but includes local disposal of sediments containing lower levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency had so far required all PCBs to leave Berkshire County.
The deal was rejected by one party to the mediation, the Housatonic River Initiative, and could be appealed. But groups that signed the pact see a breakthrough consensus.
"There was a kind of zero-sum game that was going on," Shatz said earlier attempts to reach accord with GE. "You either won or lost. There was no real understanding of what a mediation was about. No willingness to enter into it. And things changed, fortunately, because GE changed personnel."
Channing Gibson, Lenox's representative in the mediation, said GE had declined earlier invitations to negotiate cleanup terms with Berkshire communities. "For whatever reason, GE wasn't ready to negotiate when [the towns' attorney] reached out to them," Gibson said.
On Monday, Martella told an overflow audience at the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum that the company has for 20 years been committed to removing PCBs released into the river from its Pittsfield transformer plant. He mentioned the "hundreds of millions" already spent and said GE had been "largely aligned" with the EPA and Berkshires communities on the next phase of the cleanup.
"But we have had a disagreement and where to dispose of the sediment and the soil," he said. That led the company to appeal the EPA's 2016 permit, which required out-of-state PCB disposal.
"We decided to do something a little different," Martella said Monday. "Rather than dig in stronger on our legal positions, which would only delay action to clean the river for years through the courts, we decided instead to pursue an olive branch."
He added, "This is a far better alternative than more years of protracted litigation which would delay the cleanup and extend the uncertainty."
Before joining GE in 2017, Martella worked for the EPA as general counsel, departing in 2008 for a time in private practice. That was years before the Rest of River cleanup took shape, though from the podium Martella pointed out a former colleague, EPA attorney Timothy Conway, in the audience.
Like others, Conway believes Martella helped change the tone. "He was constructive and willing to listen," Conway said.
Bryan Olson, director of the Superfund and emergency management division in the EPA's Boston office, credits Martella with taking a fresh approach.
"I've been dealing with this problem for 25 years, and this is the first time I felt like we're coming to the table [with] someone that really wants to do something good for the Berkshires," Olson said of Martella.
"I think he was tough, but he was also very understanding of the position we had and fairly open with the discussions back and forth," Olson said. "This was a different scene. GE wanted to make this happen. Obviously they've made out something on this deal. But they also, I think, felt they'd rather spend money cleaning up the river, then shipping [PCB] material across the country."
The Eagle caught up with Martella in the Lenox train station's parking lot after the announcement.
Question: How do you think your time at the EPA may or may not inform your approach to being part of this agreement?
Answer: I've been an environmental lawyer my entire life. I feel very strongly that time, the loss of time, and the lack of certainty are two of the biggest challenges for the environment.
I bring that background to this, and I appreciate the fact that I work for a company that wants to address those same concerns and felt strongly about accelerating the cleanup and about resolving the uncertainty. So the company and I and my background — we're all aligned on that.
Q: In your remarks, you mentioned a "new chapter." If you were going to edit the old chapter, what would you change?
A: I think I go back to the time of uncertainty. Too much uncertainty, and too much time gone by. I think we all agree that time is one of the most important things in resolving environmental issues. And we have the opportunity now to address that and to move forward.
Q: Why does GE agree to engage in an extended cleanup, beyond what the EPA asked for in 2016?
A: When you resolve a complicated project like this, everything is a compromise. And so we had to hear from different stakeholders.
We heard from EPA who had their set of issues. From the communities. From the environmental groups. And so we knew that if we were going to reach a compromise, one of the components would be removing more PCBs and an enhanced cleanup. It was something we supported when we heard those concerns.
Q: Some people are going to be surprised that the company engaged in so many points of compromise here. As a representative of General Electric, what did the others have to compromise on?
A: We all know there's different risks involved — and we all do our own risk analysis. We had one thing in common. We wanted this to move forward without delay.
We wanted to address the uncertainty. It was a matter of understanding everybody's priorities and trying to find compromise where we could address those issues.
Q: Some people may think the company was just interested in reducing the cost of the cleanup. Bryan Olson of the EPA told us the company gave back about two-thirds of what could have been the savings from local PCB disposal. Is he right about that?
A: No, I wouldn't ... (He laughs.) Bryan probably does his own math. We don't do math like that.
Again, our focus was on addressing the timeliness, the delay and the uncertainty. You can play out all kinds of hypotheticals about courts and litigation. We just didn't want to go there. We wanted to focus on getting a resolution. I think we feel differently about our legal positions. Everybody probably always feels like they're going to win their cases. We didn't even want to go there.
Q: Do you know what the cost will be for the cleanup as it's now envisioned? As you know, the EPA put a $613 million estimate of the cost of the Rest of River work in the 2016 permit. Do you have a new figure on what it will cost?
A: No, I don't. We've been careful not to engage in that kind of math.
Q: Was there a particular breakthrough moment in the course of the mediation where you felt, OK, this is going to work out?
A: I think you heard it today. (He is referring to statements from other parties to the mediation.) There's a lot of history and baggage, with many different relationships. At some point I think we all agreed where we were going to trust each other and put that behind us. I don't remember exactly when that happened, but once we did that, I think we all saw the path ahead.
It remained hard. There were many challenges, and there were times when, you know, we had harder days than better days, but I think we all recognized that this was the best thing for the river.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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