Settlement marks 'historic day for the Berkshire community'
LENOX — A who's who of national, state and local leaders, environmental advocates and a high-level GE official led a celebration Monday of the hard-won compromise agreement for an expanded cleanup of chemicals in the Housatonic River from southeast Pittsfield through five South Berkshire towns and beyond.
"This is a historic day for the Berkshire community," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. "We're here to present you with the facts and the logistics of the biggest public works project the Berkshires has seen in 150 years, and the biggest environmental cleanup in Berkshire history. This collaborative project is all about creating a better life for the next generations of Berkshire residents."
But a vocal group of dissenters from the Housatonic River Initiative, led by longtime river advocate Tim Gray, sought at times to interrupt — if not disrupt — the official rollout of the Environmental Protection Agency's deal with GE, Pittsfield, the five towns and other stakeholders for a more thorough removal of the probable cancer-causing chemicals. General Electric Co. dumped PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, into the river for decades until they were banned in the 1970s.
Pignatelli served as emcee at the event attended by more than 100 people in the historic 1903 Lenox train station on the shores of Woods Pond, the Housatonic hot spot of PCB contamination.
"This agreement is bigger than all of us," the Lenox Democrat said. "It's about creating a better Berkshires for the next generation."
Calling the settlement "a major turning point," EPA Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel credited Berkshire and regional leaders for "the courage they've shown to actively shape an agreement to bring a cleaner, healthier river." He cited town leaders of Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, the state of Connecticut, Mass Audubon, Berkshire Environmental Action Team and Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey Cook.
He termed the deal "one of New England's biggest cleanups ever a groundbreaking success, bringing together all viewpoints to reach a resolution that far exceeds any individual solution, and the results have been remarkable. The collective benefits will be positive, protective and permanent."
The key to the accord, which promises a quick start to the cleanup design by GE, calls for out-of-state shipment of the most toxic contamination from the river and its shores — a "non-negotiable" demand from the EPA. It also creates a "state of the art" Upland Disposal Facility at the former Lane Construction gravel pit on the Lee-Lenox line for 80 to 90 percent of the low-level PC material found to be well below the danger point.
Pignatelli urged the protesters to be respectful, noting that three public comment meetings will be held in Lee, Great Barrington and Pittsfield in the coming weeks.
"There's still a long way to go," he told the group from the Housatonic River Initiative, which took part in the mediation talks as one of nine negotiating teams but declined to sign the compromise agreement. "Your input continues to be very important to us, and I do appreciate you all being here."
Deziel also acknowledged that the group was "very much involved in the mediation discussions that got us to this milestone. In fact, many of the cleanup improvements in the agreement reflect the close coordination with our partners from the environmental community like HRI. We respect their right to make their views known and hope they will also share with us their appreciation for the environmental progress that this deal represents."
Pursuing an olive branch
Representing General Electric, Roger Martella, director of environmental health and safety, doubled down on the company's commitment "to one of the most extensive river cleanups in the country." Citing previous disagreements on disposal of PCB sediment and soil, he pointed to GE's decision not to "dig in stronger on our legal positions which would only delay action to cleanup of the river through the courts."
Instead, he said, "we decided to pursue an olive branch with EPA and these communities."
He stressed an immediate start on designing the cleanup and "a state-of-the-art landfill using all appropriate technologies and protections for these circumstances, under EPA's supervision, and we'll do it with transparency for all of the public."
Martella voiced confidence that the landfill will be "fully protected" and acknowledged the compromise that sends the most toxic material out-of-state.
"This is the beginning of a new relationship and many years of hard work together in partnership to realize the goals for the cleanup of the Housatonic," he said. "It begins a new chapter in the Berkshires, and we are committed to working with our partners and everyone in this room for what we all believe will be a successful project."
Pittsfield resident Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, described the agreement as "the best opportunity for a more thorough" project to protect the environment and wildlife.
"BEAT and our allies will always keep fighting to have the dumps in Berkshire County and beyond thoroughly remediated as alternative technologies become available," she said, adding her thanks to the Housatonic River Initiative "for pushing so strongly on this."
Representing Mass Audubon, regional director Stephen Hutchinson voiced support for the settlement to ensure a restoration of a healthy river, while Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries Director Becky Cushing said the agreement "will allow us to reclaim the river" and eliminate worries about contamination.
Acknowledging the need to resolve lingering concerns, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, urged "continuing conversation on a path forward established by the EPA."
And U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said the "hard-earned agreement" offers "a measure of justice for past wrongs and ensures that the Housatonic is enjoyed by future generations."
"Environmental justice and corporate accountability are long battles," the Massachusetts Democrat stressed. "And we know there is more to do. Vigilance and monitoring will be key, and I pledge to be the cop on the beat to make sure that we're policing all parties to ensure they follow through on their promises. We are all stewards of the Housatonic River and that requires commitment, partnership and accountability."
Representing the five-town Rest of River Municipal Committee that negotiated the mediation agreement, Patricia Carlino of the Lee Select Board called her decision to support the compromise "the hardest thing I've ever gone through." She described a "realistic" approach allowing local disposal of less-toxic PCB material at the best possible location on the northwest edge of her town.
"On behalf of my children, grandchildren and, God willing, my great-grandchildren, as well as all the families, present and future of my community," said Carlino, "I mediated and fought for a safer, less invasive but more enhanced cleanup of the current toxic landfill in Berkshire County, and by that, I mean the Housatonic River. Doing nothing is not an option; it needs a cleanup and we need to do it on our terms."
Former Lenox Selectman Channing Gibson, the town's representative on the committee, agreed that "these issues inspire a lot of passion, and that's understandable, but the simple fact is there were only two choices for the towns: Either submit to the potentially disastrous risks of a drawn-out litigation process that could have resulted in three local landfills containing 100 percent of the PCB-laden soils and settlements, or find a mediated solution."
He said there was no effort to "simply wring money out of GE, nor to punish them" but to act "in the best interest of our towns. Public health and safety were our paramount concerns."
Moving forward together
Tyer, Pittsfield's mayor, acknowledged the protesters, telling them that "your voice does influence our thinking."
She cheered the settlement for cleaning up residential properties in the city and yielding multiple investments to support revitalization and economic development "to rebuild our city after a post-industrial decline and the river is a component of that. We go forward together today."
Initially dubious about the mediation effort, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Ward 4 resident of Pittsfield, cited the need to protect future generations, residents in neighborhoods directly impacted, and the city's overall well-being. Determining that she was "well-represented" by the negotiators at the table, she said: "I'm impressed, I am grateful and this skeptic trusts you."
Cook, the Pittsfield attorney and a riverfront resident, conceded that no one is getting everything they want in the agreement.
"I wish there was less of a cleanup," he said. "But I know we have to move forward with a cleanup."
He emphasized that continuing uncertainty was unacceptable and praised five EPA officials involved in the settlement.
"I don't agree with them on everything, but I totally trust them and their commitment to do the right thing for everyone in this room and everyone else in Berkshire County," he said. "If you deal with the art of the doable, this is the best route forward, even though there are many things about it that some of us could argue about. It is time to get this done."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.