Liar! Liar! River on fire!

The Berkshire high muckety-mucks – the bankers, lawyers, corporate execs, and their cultural minions – are trying to help GE save millions with a minimal PCB river cleanup. They have new organizations with new names, 1Berkshire and the Smart Clean-Up Coalition, but these are the folks who ten years ago tried to scare everybody about the EPA and Superfund. And, I’m told, GE just gave 1Berkshire hundreds of thousands of dollars. Who’s 1Berkshire? They’re the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation, the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, and Berkshire Creative.

They don’t mention PCBs. Probably because they never had to work at Power Transformer, slogging through PCB oil, clothes soaked, shoes melting as they worked. Probably because their kids went to Berkshire Country Day School instead of Pittsfield’s Allendale School, which was built on top of GE’s PCB-poisoned fill.

When homeowners discovered backyards contaminated with PCBs; when parents discovered the Dorothy Amos Playground was built over PCB-fill, the high muckety-mucks wanted them to shut up. They said hysterical homeowners would blow it for Pittsfield: moaning about lost tourist dollars and falling real estate values.

So they opted for denial rather than a clean-up. The problem wasn’t sick workers, a softball complex built over toxic waste, or Pittsfield’s PCB-contaminated aquifer. The problem was the pesky environmentalists who demanded a complete clean-up and a fishable, swimmable river. And the EPA who was trying to enforce the law.

GE workers talked about how PCB-oil routinely went down the drains of the factory buildings and the enormous underground toxic lake beneath East Street.

Together, GE workers, Pittsfield homeowners, and river advocates spent more than a decade urging the state and federal government to force GE to clean the Housatonic.

And they won. GE had to remove large amounts of PCBs from two miles of the river in Pittsfield.

Now, the muckety-mucks are trying to scare you about a comprehensive river cleanup for the rest of the river.

First, they misrepresent what happened in Pittsfield. They say the first clean-up “disrupted our community and permanently changed the landscape of the River.” No acknowledgement that the river had frighteningly high levels of PCBs or that the Army Corps of Engineers had already turned it into an industrial channel or that the oil-soaked river once caught fire.

The state Department of Environmental Protection advised people to be concerned about soil with PCB levels of 2 ppm (that’s two parts per million). Well, beside Building 68, there were PCB levels of 1,534 parts per million in the river sediment, and levels of 720 ppm on the riverbank. On average, that half-mile of the river had PCB levels of 40 ppm in its sediment.

Smart Clean-Up never mentions that the EPA took action because young children and teenagers playing in and near the river faced liver, nervous system damage and development abnormalities, including lower IQs, at risks 200 times greater than considered safe.

By forcing GE to clean it, the EPA permanently changed the river, but only for the better.

Next, the muckety-mucks imply the EPA is entertaining a decades-long proposal to tear up every tree, bush, and flower and all the soil along 10 miles of the river. With 50,000 truckloads driving contaminated dirt on local roads to massive PCB dumps.

So dreadful, even the late Norman Rockwell emailed me, to support the Smart Clean-Up: “Extensive dredging would devastate the River and negatively impact tourism, the Berkshire County economy and our quality of life for years, if not forever.”

Lest you fret, Smart Clean Up has a “low impact” solution, which “will protect the integrity of the river.” Unfortunately “the specifics of the low-impact approach have not been decided in detail.”
Smart Clean-Up is merely parroting GE. These clean-up scenarios are GE’s straw men. The EPA hasn’t said a word about what kind of clean-up they will require.

Only GE – and its friends – believe you have to destroy a river to clean it. Only GE and its associates believe dredging – removing PCBs – is worse than leaving them in our environment. 1Berkshire won’t tell you, but PCBs drastically compromise the immune and reproductive and behavioral systems of humans and animals. And in the Housatonic we have fish and duck populations with the highest levels of PCBs in the nation.

Norman, has anyone told you that this low-impact solution would leave significant amounts of PCBs in the river you love? With toxic fish and poisoned ducks?

The fact is the Housatonic River Initiative just hosted two companies who have developed innovative ways to safely dredge and treat PCBs: Genesis Solutions and Biotech Restorations. Genesis can dredge the river without leveling the landscape; and Biotech can safely break down the PCB molecule on our river banks without cutting our trees or harming our wildlife. Watch for yourself:

Smart Clean-Up and the folks at the Norman Rockwell Museum are deceiving you. There is nothing “smart” about a clean-up that allows GE to leave toxic PCBs in our river. It is, in fact, profoundly stupid.

The Berkshire Record, February 10, 2011. © Mickey Friedman