Good government. When was the last time you heard that expression? Or believed in it?

Well I’ve seen it. From the United States Environmental Protection Agency. That’s right, the federal good government.

Ninety members of the community were treated to three nights of lectures about every major aspect of the Housatonic River, and then asked to take some of that knowledge and pretend we were the government. To try our hand at shaping a sensible solution to the very complicated problem of a poisoned river.

Over 20 years, the EPA and I have had our ups and downs. Some sweet times of mutual respect, and some sour times of conflict. I even took her to court. In retrospect, I was right to challenge the EPA decision to let General Electric expand its Hill 78 dump across the street from the Allendale School in Pittsfield. But I was wrong to disparage the clean-up plan for the first half-mile of the river. They not only cleaned up some astoundingly high levels of PCBs but insisted that GE restore the riverbanks.

The EPA brought some very smart scientists/consultants to tell us what they have learned about the river over the last decade.

From Richard DiNitto, I learned we’ve been telling ourselves a lovely but highly inaccurate story about the river. Remember the Smart Clean-up Coalition, the group created by the bankers and Chamber of Commerce and cultural institutions of the Berkshire advocating for a “low impact approach” to “protect the integrity of the river?” Because “The Rest of the River is a natural untouched forested and wetlands area abound with wildlife and recreational activities.” Because “extensive dredging” will devastate that river and tourism for “generations to come.” And because an extensive clean-up will mean “removing all vegetation and soil from the riverbanks, streams and wetland areas.”

The untouched river of integrity is Myth #1. We’ve been messing with the river for ten thousand years. To better fish it, the paleo-indians built extensive stone structures to slow and change the way the river flowed. The European settlers cleared the forests and the floodplain. In the 1800s, pig iron blast furnaces were built up and down the river. To fire the furnaces, great amounts of lumber were burnt to create the charcoal for fuel. To transport those logs, the river was cleared. Then the mills, and dams were built, and side channels created to funnel off water for raceways to power those mills. Which created backwaters and changed the velocity of the river and sediment flows. Then the railroad came. And the easiest place to put it was next to the river. We know the river was straightened, even picked up and moved along October Mountain to accommodate the railroad.

About 92% of the river from the confluence to Woods Ponds – a good portion of the Rest of the River – has been straightened and extensively manipulated. The truth according to Richard DiNitto: what appears to be a “natural pristine environment, is actually a disturbed river system.”

Myth #2. We can remove PCBs from a select number of PCB hotspots and leave most of the river intact. Ed Garland showed us that Smart Clean-Up’s pristine riverbanks are actually quite unstable and constantly eroding. The River is constantly changing, and the PCBs in both riverbank soils and river sediment are often moving. Because of floods, the floodplain is heavily contaminated with PCBs. Thousands of samples have been taken. You can have very high levels in one spot but right beside it find low levels. The truth: “PCB contamination is extensive and there are no hotspots.”

Additionally, we learned that 90% of the PCBs that enter Woods Pond end up going over the dam and head downstream. That’s bad news for Lee, Stockbridge, Housatonic, even Connecticut.

John Lortie and his team have studied the ecology of the river. His conclusion: “Every group of species we sampled starting from the paraphyte which is essentially an assemblage of algae and other material that grows on the rocks, and on the vegetation, has PCBs. The insects have PCBs. The fish have PCBs. All the mammals we studied. The waterfowl tissue that we sampled had some of the highest level of PCBs ever recorded.”

Myth #3: a comprehensive cleanup means a destroyed river. Keith Bowers travels the world fixing remediated waterways. Because we know how the Housatonic flows and floods and which plants live where, and where the wildlife lives, we can design and implement a thorough and organic restoration plan. We can carefully remove toxic PCBs, minimize ecological destruction while we stabilize the banks and rebuild vernal pools and recreate a healthy place for plants, for fish, for the smallest and largest of us.

I want to thank the EPA for showing us what good government is all about.

You can watch these video presentations and download the presentations at

The Berkshire Record, May 19, 2011 © Mickey Friedman