Housatonic — The fight against General Electric’s plans to dump toxic PCBs in South County isn’t over — not by a long shot, says Tim Gray, who heads a Berkshire County group battling the corporate titan.
Gray and other key figures in the movement to resist GE’s plan to site three dumps in South County gathered Tuesday night (April 25) in the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire for a “Stop The Dumps” meeting to rally support and plot strategy.
But unlike a similar meeting in Housatonic a little more than a year ago, when more 250 people packed the Unitarian Church in a standing-room-only turnout, this one attracted an audience of only about 50. Nevertheless, passions ran just as high as they did in March 2016.
“They need public pressure,” said Gray, who heads the nonprofit Housatonic River Initiative, which has been battling GE and advocating for a proper river cleanup since 1992. “You get a lot of people and you scream. When there are hundreds of people, they react.”
Gray had assembled an array of experts and advocates to educate and motivate the audience: Judith Herkimer of the Housatonic Environmental Action League (HEAL) of Cornwall, Conn.; Jane Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action League (BEAT) and Benno Friedman of the HRI.
Gray said the impetus for the meeting was recent media coverage giving the impression that it was a done deal that GE has given up on the South County dump sites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered GE to remove PCBs from the Housatonic below Pittsfield, an operation known as Rest of River, and ship them to a licensed out-of-state facility. In January 2016, GE formally objected to EPA’s final cleanup remedy, challenging the agency’s directive to transport and dispose of the PCB waste off-site.
GE has also appealed the EPA decision to the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) at EPA Headquarters in Washington. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 8. If the EAB also upholds the EPA’s permit, GE is likely to appeal to the United States Court of Appeal for the First Circuit in Boston.
As he did last year, Gray explained the history behind the highly toxic PCBs, which GE dumped legally into the river from its sprawling Pittsfield plant until the practice was banned in 1979.
GE is proposing to establish dumps for the material dredged from the river in Lenox Dale, near Goose Pond in Lee and on land adjacent to Rising Pond, an impoundment on the river in the village of Housatonic. The local dumping method of disposal is expected to save the company hundreds of millions of dollars, Gray said.
The company was permitted by the EPA to dump PCBs dredged earlier from the Pittsfield section of the river into an abandoned field known as “Hill 78,” adjacent to Allendale Elementary School in Pittsfield. The remainder of the project, to the Connecticut border and beyond, has been dubbed Rest of River.
But Gray, the other speakers and most of the audience were concerned that the movement not lose momentum. Gray was equally concerned that GE will persist in litigation and that its deep pockets will allow it do so indefinitely.
“Their legal brief put it in no uncertain terms that they will go to court to be allowed to do this,” Gray said.
“This is one of the biggest corporate fights I have ever seen,” Herkimer added.
While Herkimer, Gray and others addressed various aspects of the controversy, Winn gave a brief lecture on the efficacy of remediating vernal ponds. But the emphasis in the audience was on organizing the opposition to GE, as well as garnering regional and national media coverage and engaging in effective social media strategies.
Michael Cohen of Great Barrington said last year GE’s stock lost 6.8 percent of its value with an impact of almost $20 billion in lost value at a time when the stock market is otherwise doing well. In addition, the company “has a tremendous amount of debt,” he said. Cohen suggested that the bad news for GE could be a result of adverse publicity.
“The other thing to note is that GE tweets daily,” Cohen said, holding a smart phone in his hand and scrolling through his Twitter feed. “They have 10 Twitter accounts. Know your enemy … They’re trying very had to give the perception that they’re making the world a better place.”
He suggested more adverse publicity might result in further losses and shame the company into changing course but only “if the world knew how terrible they were treating this community.”
And it appears opposition is growing. The Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, which includes officials from six South County Towns, came out strongly against the GE plan last year. That was followed by a friend-of-court brief from the committee, which was joined by several Berkshire County environmental and planning organizations, including the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which submitted a brief of its own. .
And another environmental organization, the Great Barrington-based Green Berkshires, filed an amicus brief late last month alleging GE failed to refute the EPA’s reasons for banning a permanent hazardous and solid waste dump site for contaminated materials within the South County proposed area.
Gray said another reason not to be complacent is GE’s recent behavior during a large cleanup operation on the Hudson River north of Albany, where the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a 44-page report asserting that the $1 billion PCB cleanup of the Hudson was a failure, and urged the EPA to take additional action. Gray characterized the operation in Fort Edward as “a mess.”
Others at the meeting suggested staging a protest in Boston, where GE is in the process of moving its corporate headquarters from Fairfield, Conn. The reason for such a protest, Gray said: “When you go to Boston, you get Boston press.”
Gray is contemplating another meeting, and would like to invite celebrated author and environmental activist Lois Gibbs, who was personally affected by the Love Canal environmental crisis in the 1970s and has written award-winning books about her experiences. Others in the audience suggested a social media workshop.
“We need coordinated messaging with proper hashtags,” Cohen said.