The Muddied Waters of Housatonic River Debate

The EPA held public meetings in both Berkshire County and Connecticut this week to exhibit their current strategic groupthink with environmental agencies in those two states (see: EPA Outlines Potential Plan for Housatonic Cleanup in iBerkshires) While the current planning document is still being called “preliminary and tentative” (the plan continues to evolve with each public hearing, some indication of a healthy process taking place), it seems that the position of Massachusetts’ Dep and the federal agency are at least a little bit more on the same page from the serious deviations seen when the Commonwealth offered its own presentation in October.

Among the steps forward that seem to have been incorporated into their ongoing planning ar a more detailed proposal of remediation (dredging and capping) at Woods Pond in Lenox, and the elimination of an earlier intention to place three PCB landfills in southern Berkshire County. This latter met with vehement opposition when first proposed in an earlier 2010 plan.

Personally, when the MA DEP and Federal EPA are releasing these reports, I sometimes wish I had a more extensive knowledge of both engineering and ecological sciences, so I could really evaluate the worth of what they’re saying personally, for myself. Because an unbiased interpretation of the data is hard to find.

We’ve heard extensive presentations in the Berkshires from state and federal environmental officials that a low(er) impact cleanup of the Housatonic is the way to go, that anything more rigorous would permanently alter or destroy the current beauty and ecological diversity of the river. Of course, these officials were all appointed, at the state or federal level, by politicians who’ve all received financing from General Electric, who stands to save hundreds of millions from a less intrusive cleanup. GE CEO Jeffrey (“send the jobs to China”) Immelt is Obama’s own job czar, an unholy partnership that continues to raise the eyebrows of honest skeptics everywhere. Worse for credibility, as protestors at the last Housatonic meeting in Lenox 7 months ago reminded me, former Mass. environmental secretary Robert Durand, who “helped” us with the creation of the Consent Decree, is now a top GE lobbyist.

So everything from these agency officials must rationally be taken with its own grain- nay, tablespoon- of salt.

Of course, there’s the Smart River Cleanup Initiative, a promotional campaign setup by 1Berkshire to advocate and lobby for a low impact cleanup. That marketing campaign, coincidentally (or not) began in January 2011, the same month that a $300,000 contribution from G.E. appeared on their books. Those associated with 1Berkshire maintain that the G.E. donation, the largest the company has made to any nonprofit in the area in well over a decade, has nothing to do with their coinciding immediate decision to launch a campaign that just happens to advocate a cleanup approach that would cost GE hundreds of millions less to conduct. Well, most of them- except for the two board members, Eugenie Sills and James Whalan, who resigned over this questionable lobbying.  The rest of 1Berkshire and its close associates in the community became, practically overnight, well versed and vocal experts in favor of an approach much more limited than even the current EPA/DEP proposal, one most closely resembling GE’s own money-saving suggestions.  Meanwhile, it’s hard for many area residents, even those immersed in cultural tourism circles, to recall one other major initiative or project 1Berkshire has undertaken since its much-trumpeted formation 2 years ago.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be taking in funds from any particular party to merit skepticism. Environmental activists can most certainly have their own knee-jerk anti-corporate biases, and I have plenty of times encountered a disturbing lack of understanding of fundamental scientific principles among such activists in the past.  There is also the natural human tendency to entrench oneself in a position, once chosen, and remain impenetrable to new data that might contradict that position.  So I often find myself consuming an awful lot of salt from every direction, contrary to the advice of my physician.

This time, though, science may in fact be on the side of groups such as the Housatonic River Initiative, who have called for a “fishable, swimmable river” from the very beginning. One of the major reasons cited for a reduced cleanup that would remove only about a quarter of the PCBs is the key vernal pools that dot the winding southern path of the Housatonic. In June 2011, GE told the EPA that “These activities would cause an immediate loss, in all or parts of these pools, of the amphibian and other species that depend on vernal pools for breeding. They would also cause alterations in the hydrology, vegetation, and soil conditions of these vernal pools.”

In its heavily advertised “educational” film “The Housatonic: The Fate of a River,” GE-selected experts tell us that the dredging done in Pittsfield under the Consent Decree was a failure, and that as a result vernal pools are not bouncing back. However, due to the existence of a document detailing GE’s own research on the already remediated 2 mile area of the Housatonic, we now know for sure that with careful (but expensive) efforts, vernal pools absolutely CAN be restored in the floodplain after dredging, and that it can begin to bounce back to its crucial biological balance in a surprisingly short time.

In fact, a vernal pool that was completely dried out in September 2010 had bounced back considerably by the Spring of 2011, with ““documented the presence of fairy shrimp, a full breeding chorus of wood frogs, approximately 100 wood frog egg masses, wood frog tadpoles estimated to number into the thousands, and transforming juveniles in the pool with tail remnants, any one of which satisfies the biological criteria for vernal pool certification …” See: Housatonic River Memorandum, Jan 2012

Vernal Pool returned in 6 months in Pittsfield

Perhaps not suprisingly, GE has not altered the scare film to include this unwelcome data. Speaking of the film, and its home website,, am I the only one who sees an ad for this in my Facebook interface virtually every day? As an old marketing hack myself, I can’t help but think of the old proverb: “A good thing sells itself, a bad thing advertises itself.”

Meanwhile, there’s still a shadow hanging over the prospect of any environmental cleanup effort of the “Rest of the River” (which is still years away at the earliest): Pittsfield, the original source of all the PCBs which GE illegally dumped for decades, itself was never fully remediated, and may never be. While the controversial Consent Decree signed by former Mayor Gerry Doyle provided for removal of large amounts of the toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic polychorinated biphenyls from its section of the river, and from Silver Lake (the latter of which has still not taken place), it still leaves us saddled with Hill 78, PCBs buried under Sabic, and in who-knows-how-many other little contaminated hotspots, like the forgotten old cistern in Springside Park above Broadview Terrace, where the concrete has begun to seriously deteriorate and rainwater once more begins to stir up contaminated sediment into our air and groundwater.

And, while EPA New England Regional admin Curt Spalding spent much of the 3 hour hearing Thursday assuring the crowd that their current, still emerging plans don’t necessarily preclude any proposed approaches, these Pittsfield sites are prettymuch off the table for discussion.

“That’s not going to happen,” he told one Pittsfield resident pretty unequivocably, of removing Hill 78.

So the one thing that isn’t going to be an option in the ongoing, continuously revised plans for eventually cleaning the Housatonic River, it seems, is finishing the cleanup at the source of the pollution.


1 thought on “The Muddied Waters of Housatonic River Debate

  1. Pingback: Things You Might Have Missed in Pittsfield This Week | I, Pittsfield

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