Congressman John Olver was nice enough to march in Great Barrington’s 250th Anniversary Parade. But he and Senator Scott Brown and officials at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs just did something despicable. They have gone over the heads of our local Environmental Protection Agency officials, the folks who have been studying and cleaning the Housatonic River for the last fifteen years. They’re trying to delay the cleanup.
Finally, the EPA is ready to take their peer-reviewed, scientific studies of the fish and frogs and ducks, the detailed understanding of how the river flows, how and where the PCBs move, decades of hard-earned information, and craft a clean-up plan.
To clean our River of seventy years of GE’s reckless misuse of toxic PCBs. In spite of GE’s purchase of silence and complicity by cultural institutions, community leaders, and politicians of both parties. We’ve had journalists become GE public relations employees. Environmental regulators become GE lobbyists. Full-page misleading ads in the Berkshire Eagle; and most recently a slick film full of falsehoods.
And all the while, the EPA was slowly studying the River, compiling a record of where the PCBs are, and what the PCBs are doing to the living things that make the River home. Relying on science. So slowly and so methodically it seemed like forever.
This was to be the beginning of the end. The EPA’s interim plan. Which goes to the Remedy Review Board, with EPA experts from all over the country. People who have cleaned up other rivers. Who know what works and what doesn’t. Going over the Housatonic River plan from top to bottom to point out problems. So the Region One folks can make an even better plan.
Then GE and the public and anybody and everybody else can comment on it.
But John Olver and Scott Brown and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts don’t want the process to go the way it’s supposed to go. After all these years of studying, after all these years of waiting, they’ve asked Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA, for more time. The state has had thirty years to come up with a plan. What they’ve come up with is a farce.
Parts of it sound like it’s been written by GE. Telling the same dishonest story GE has been telling. That the cleanup of the first two miles has been a failure. That there’s no way you can clean the Rest of the River without destroying it. That basically GE should be made to dredge Woods Pond, but be allowed leave its PCBs throughout the floodplain. That it’s OK that the fish are poisoned. That the ducks are poisoned. We can live with the fact that they have some of the highest PCB levels in the United States.
This is what GE said: when it comes to the Rest of River, less really is more. The least intrusive approaches to cleaning up river sediment and floodplain soil will meet EPA’s human health criteria, are protective of the environment, and are far more likely to achieve that goal without “destroying a river to clean it.” (CMS, Executive Summary, 1)
This is what our top Massachusetts’ environmental officials wrote in their February 2011 letter to the Eagle:
Removing all the PCBs from the river bottom, banks and adjacent floodplain would require massive tree-cutting, dredging, soil removal, construction of new roads and staging areas, and elimination of habitat for plant and animal species found nowhere else in the commonwealth. We must make GE remedy the damage it has caused, but we must not destroy the river in order to save it.
If the Commonwealth gets it way: we’ll have a bunch more signs saying you shouldn’t eat the fish and frogs and turtles and ducks. We’ll have boot-washing stations on the poisoned land that borders the River. So if you get the PCB-contaminated dirt on your skin, or breathe in the dust, at least you can clean your shoes.
Why is this happening? I don’t know for sure. But here’s some interesting information. In 2010, Scott Brown got $26,250 from GE. John Olver got $3,000 from GE. GE spends a fortune lobbying members of Congress to influence the EPA. In 2010, GE spent $39 million on lobbying. Remember Peter Larkin, state representative from Pittsfield? He’s a GE lobbyist. Remember Bob Durand, friend of the environment, fisherman, hunter, former Massachusetts Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. Well he’s a GE lobbyist.
In the two miles already cleaned, PCB levels went from an average concentration of 29 parts per million down to less than 1 ppm. The wildlife has returned. The EPA knows how to clean rivers without destroying them.
Shame on John Olver and Scott Brown. Shame on the State. If they get their way, we’ll have a poisoned river forever.
The Berkshire Record, Thursday July 14, 2011 © Mickey Friedman