Pittsfield — He arrived in a cold driving rainstorm Monday morning (March 28), small as he pushed his way up a swift swelling river whose magnificence, legend and problems seem so much larger than one man and a white canoe can reckon with.
But against this backdrop of a Fortune 500 company’s vast and dangerous pollution over decades, and its dirty legal battle to avoid the full Housatonic River cleanup laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the smallness of Denny Alsop, though he paddles to Boston in peace, is likely one of the biggest guns in the Berkshires’ armory for a thorough cleanup of General Electric’s PCB mess down the “Rest of the River.”
“I’m not the hero, I’m the messenger,” Alsop, 69, told well wishers and state officials as he climbed ashore at Fred Garner Park, a section of river that is now PCB-free and thriving as a result of the first leg of GE’s cleanup through Pittsfield, and a counter to GE’s claims that cleaning the rest of the river will destroy it.
To prove it, Alsop filled his one drinking water jug with river water. “Eighteen years ago this would have been illegal,” he said as he dipped it in the river, referring to the pollution here when he made his first solo canoe trip to Boston in 1988 to bring attention to the importance of clean water.
It was day eight of his voyage, and Alsop, who pitches a small tent every night next to the river, sleeping in his life-preserver for warmth, had already collected messages in bottles directed at politicians in Boston, as well as messages written on his canoe with waterproof markers. He will continue to carry them on his lone voyage for love of clean water as he makes his way to Boston by canoe, set to arrive just before Earth Day.
“I love this river,” Alsop said, dripping rainwater and holding a bouquet of tulips. “It’s worth everything we can do to clean it up and preserve it for our grandchildren.”
GE is fighting the EPA over the extent of river cleanup at Woods Pond, and does not want to ship the contaminated waste out of state. Instead, it wants to dump the toxic, PCB-saturated sediment into three landfills it is eyeing in Lee, Lenox Dale and Housatonic. Community groups like Stop the Dumps have already formed to oppose local PCB landfills.
Alsop had passed through Great Barrington on days three and four where he said, since his last trip, the riverbanks had been beautifully cleaned and restored by Rachel Fletcher and Housatonic River Walk crews. He met with third graders at Muddy Brook Elementary the following day. He then passed through the rapids in Lee, where people shouted to him, asking him if he knew what he was doing.
But it was at Wood’s Pond in Lenox Dale, one of the most heavily contaminated areas due to the dam, that Alsop realized something. “The area is in control of beavers,” he said, noting that they “dig as deep as 6 feet” into sediment. He said much of the beaver activity was in the flood plain, which after it is disturbed by the animals and the area floods, the contaminated sediment flows back into the river. He said he had studied state data about the 156 species that reside along and use the river, and there was “no mention of beavers.”
“It’s all going downstream” and eventually “into Long Island Sound,” he said. That is why GE’s plan “involving leaving PCBs in core areas is deeply flawed.”
“The life of the river,” said Housatonic River Initiative’s Benno Friedman, “is measured in hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Denny has come upstream against the current…the stream of indifference, a lack of political will, a lack of funding.”
Friedman said the oft-criticized EPA are “good people with the best intentions — it’s the orders they get, the money they don’t have.”
EPA Public Affairs Specialist Kelsey O’Neil smiled. Huddled with everyone under a tent, she reminded the group of the success and accomplishment by the EPA and GE in cleaning the first two miles of river downstream from GE’s plant, where, she added, 7,000 trees and shrubs had been planted, for instance. “Regardless of what happens here,” she said, “there’s a lot to be proud of.” She praised the hard work of the river cleanup activists as well.
Berkshire Environmental Action Team’s (BEAT) Jane Winn said, indeed, the vernal pools have improved in the cleaned sections of river, what was an “incredible success.” The group is tracking the health of species there, and found, for instance, that wood frogs, fairy shrimp, and salamanders are thriving.
“The river is important to the future of Berkshire County,” said Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox). He pointed to a child in a stroller. “This is about this little guy. His tomorrow is when he’s our age.”
Pignatelli reminded the group that it should not only oppose dumps in Housatonic, where anti-dump fervor is high, but in all of Berkshire County. “No dumps, period,” he said. And Pignatelli says that new technology, particularly a promising new bioremediation process by a company called Biotech Solutions, is the type of thing that should be considered to avoid all dumps anywhere.
And long-time Citizens for PCB Removal (CPR) activist Barbara Cianfarini reminded everyone that this was all about health, and listed Pittsfield’s high rate of diseases that are anecdotally linked to PCBs. In 1997, she said, GE sent households with contamination a letter that said: “ ‘You might have contamination, but it won’t hurt you’…what good is a cleaned house if the river adjacent to it is full of toxins?”
CPR, Cianfarini added, wants in-situ treatment with “21st century technology” for the rest of river. “And not sweep it under the rug for future generations to deal with.” She mentioned Biopath Solutions’ offer of a free bioremediation trial on a section of river as a test, and said it was important “to get the EPA to agree to that.” Biopath Solutions could not be reached for comment.
Berkshire Natural Resources Council’s (BNRC) Narain Schroeder read from a letter BNRC addressed to GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt, that Alsop will carry to Boston, where GE is about to move its headquarters after tax break promises from Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, a development worrisome to river activists who think it may create too friendly a political environment for GE.
“While GE grew, the river ‘beyond the mountain place’ died,” Schroeder said, referring to the Mohican Indian meaning of the word, ‘Housatonic.’ “Instead of pouring money into attorneys that fight the Environmental Protection Agency, pour it into cleaning the river to meet their specifications. That is what the ‘World’s Best CEO’ would do.”