Hundreds protest General Electric’s proposed PCB dumps

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By Wednesday, Mar 16 News  19 Comments
Heather Bellow
Between 250 and 300 people crowded into the Unitarian Universalist Church in Housatonic Tuesday night for a 'Stop the Dumps' session sponsored by the Housatonic River Initiative. Above, the audience listens to HRI founder Tim Gray.

Housatonic — They packed the church to declare holy war on the General Electric Company’s plan to dump toxic PCB sludge dredged from the Housatonic River into three proposed landfills, one them in the village of Housatonic adjacent to the river into which, for four decades, GE had let millions of pounds of PCB-laced oil seep from its Pittsfield transformer manufacturing complex.

Between 250 and 300 determined residents came to the Unitarian Universalist Church of South Berkshire to a Housatonic River Initiative (HRI) “Stop the Dumps” meeting to begin a grassroots process of blocking one of the world’s 10 largest corporations from continuing to despoil and mar a region that once embraced it for providing decades of jobs and security to Pittsfield residents.

Environmental advocate Denny Alsop of Stockbridge and HRI founder Tim Gray address 'Stop the Dumps' meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

Environmental advocate Denny Alsop of Stockbridge and HRI founder Tim Gray address ‘Stop the Dumps’ meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

But those days are over. It’s been cleanup time since 2000, when GE was forced by the federal and state government to clean up its mess. Now the company has cleaned up most of the area around its former Pittsfield plant, where polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) once sloshed around factory floors before being discharged into the Housatonic River, streaming through groundwater and into soil for miles, and being dumped around the city. But GE is now in a standoff with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over details of its “Rest of River” cleanup, since those PCBs traveled downstream, and into the floodplains, swirling contaminated sediment all the way into the state of Connecticut. Fish from the river can’t be eaten, you can’t swim in it, and the critters in that habitat have shown signs of harm.

“It’s a ghost of a river,” said one resident, Sage Radachowsky.

But GE doesn’t want the EPA telling it to ship the contaminated waste from the Rest of River cleanup to a certified remediation facility in Texas for $250 million more. It wants to drop it into three landfills instead — two adjacent to the river, and one in Lee near Goose Pond. The company already owns the land for the Lenox Dale and Housatonic dumps.

“It’s pretty simple,” said filmmaker Mickey Friedman, who made Good Things to Life, a documentary about the GE pollution saga. “It’s all about money.”

Filmmaker and writer Mickey Friedman addressing the Stop the Dumps forum. Photo: Heather Bellow

Filmmaker and writer Mickey Friedman addressing the Stop the Dumps forum. Photo: Heather Bellow

The standoff between GE’s legal might and a federal agency is a taste of what’s to come in keeping the dumps out. HRI Executive Director Tim Gray said litigation with GE is “not easy.”

“GE lawyers are very hard and they will fight us tooth and nail,” Gray said. “They can fight against EPA’s rules and regulations.”

If GE were to have its way, Gray said, it would just “leave the PCBs in the river.” The company is on a campaign to convince the public that cleaning the river will harm it, Gray added, noting that the sections GE already cleaned in Pittsfield are thriving. “They did a good job,” he said. Plants and trees are coming back, and fish are doing well. “This proves something very important.”

Gray said dredging is the only proven way, at the moment, to get what the EPA says are “likely” carcinogenic organic compounds out of the water, river floor, and river banks, and the EPA uses new technology making the process controlled and less disruptive to the river and its banks. “The EPA does it all over the country,” he said.

Ideally, the need for dumps will disappear with the advent of promising new biodegradation technologies, Gray said, and resident Nick Stanton, who has become a lay expert in bioremediation, explained how a protein concoction applied to contaminated soil can rouse native bacteria to clean soil and sediment by breaking down toxins. Stanton referred to the recent pilot project to remove dioxin contamination at 100 Bridge Street in Great Barrington. Though MassDEP shut the project down over several issues, the company that did the work, Biopath Solutions, has recent test results that show a success rate of 60 percent in certain areas, and 30 percent across the site. Biopath has eyed the river cleanup for some time, and is now engaging with the EPA in Michigan to use its technology on 89 acres in Kalamazoo. The company’s track record can be found here.

Housatonic resident Pooja Ru Prema.

Housatonic resident Pooja Ru Prema.

It doesn’t sit well with some that shipping out waste means a feared dump in someone else’s backyard. “Poor Texas,” Friedman noted, after mentioning another technique of doing away with PCBs: Thermal desorption, which heats the chemicals to high temperatures, producing a liquid that still needs special disposal.

And Pooja Ru Prema got up and said she didn’t like the idea of sending waste to what was likely a low-income community. She made a larger point as well. “Poorer countries cannot ship out toxics.”

GE may have legal prowess and the money to swim through endless seas of litigation. But the company will have its hands full dealing with Berkshire residents and local rules. “GE might own the land,” said an irate Jon Piasecki, “but we own the roads.” Piasecki further said tying GE up in regulatory knots might be the way forward to “add layers of complication, chaos and expense.”

But expense is nothing to GE, explained Gabrielle Senza, who told everyone $250 million was roughly GE’s annual advertising budget. And Ed O’Malley suggested all the nice tax breaks the company just got from Massachusetts after the company’s headquarters was lured to Boston by Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. Those tax breaks, O’Malley suggested, might help GE pay the extra money to ship the waste. And Stanton said he had done a little of his own figuring indicating the average GE investor wouldn’t even notice the difference to their dividends.

Others said the strategy is to hurt GE’s image. “Use the clean water card,” said Victor Canton. “GE is vulnerable to social media.”

Demanding the soil be treated rather than dumped would strike at the heart of GE’s “ecoimagination” campaign, Friedman added.

Maia Conty of Great Barrington, speaking at the Stop the Dumps meeting.

Maia Conty of Great Barrington, speaking at the Stop the Dumps meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

Others talked about sheer human pressure and volume. “We need to hold the [GE] CEO, Jeffrey R. Immelt, personally responsible,” said Maia Conty, of a strategy she said might be effective. “I’d like to invite his wife Andrea and his daughter Sarah, and connect as humans.” And if they don’t want to come talk, well, Conty said, we’ll just go down to his home in New Caanan, New York.

“If they don’t agree to meet with us,” said Ronnie Cunningham, “why don’t we have a sit in?”

“I’m someone who likes to make noise,” said Ron Blumenthal, offering to help gather people to attend meetings and events.

Gray said he’d like to take a crowd over to the new GE headquarters in Boston, when Stockbridge resident Denny Alsop completes his second canoe trip across the state as a petition for clean water, and to “elevate the river and rivers.” Alsop told the crowd he would launch from Bartholemew’s Cobble in Ashley Falls on March 21 and will hit Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield on March 28 at 11 a.m.

Gray said the EPA always accepts and reads letters, though the formal public comment period has ended.

Housatonic Clean River Coalition’s Valerie Anderson wanted to emphasize that when writing to politicians, remember who the “bad guy” is. “The EPA doesn’t want dumps — it’s GE that wants dumps,” she said. “It’s GE, and don’t forget they moved their company to Boston.”

Speaking of politicians, Gray said “most of the politicians have gone running from this issue over the years,” but noted the presence of state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox). HRI has found most of its success with activism and “always doing something a little bit on the edge — we tend to get action that way.”

State Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli (D-Lenox) listens to presentation at 'Stop the Dumps' meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

State Rep. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli (D-Lenox) listens to a presentation at a ‘Stop the Dumps’ meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

Pignatelli later told The Edge he was “pleased with the turnout,” and said it should come as no surprise that GE purchased 149 acres next to Rising Paper Dam in 2008 to cover its rear in case of future litigation by neighbors or abutters, since next to Woods Pond, Rising Dam has some of the highest PCB concentrations in the river. As alarming as the prospect of a dump here is to residents, Pignatelli said the position should be “no dumps in Berkshire County, period.” He added some perspective, by noting that it will take several years to resolve the impasse between GE and the EPA, and another 10 to 15 years to do the next phase of clean up. A dump in Housatonic is “decades away,” if GE should get their way, he added, and he is hopeful that bioremediation will eliminate the need for bank-to-bank dredging and dumps.

“We saw Hill 78 [dump] in Pittsfield next to a schoolyard,” Pignatelli said, “and now we see what we don’t want.”


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19 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Sage says:

    We must also mention that Monsanto made the PCBs in Anniston, Alabama and continued to sell them after they knew how dangerous they are and that they were reaching rivers and people. This is documented in great detail at the Chemical Industry Archives website, with internal Monsanto memos that show their knowing wilful negligence in selling the PCBs to General Electric. These are damning documents that were released in a 2000 lawsuit that resulted in Monsanto paying hudreds of millions of dollars in damages:

    http://www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/anniston/1.asp

  2. Michelle Loubert says:

    Regarding the designated dumpsites. At this meeting as well as one other the point of dumping in poor communities in Texas or Michigan has been brought up. At a meeting in Lenox on February 19 I asked if this is true. I wasn’t given a straight answer. This is important; exactly where are these designated dumpsites? When I posted this question on HRI Facebook I was directed to inquire of the EPA. HRI should have this information readily available. I did a quick check and one Michigan site appears to be in the middle of nowhere; not a neighborhood in site (Google View). Does it then make sense to create new dumpsites in Berkshire County neighborhoods? I ask that HRI have information regarding these designated site available at its next public meeting in Great Barrington. We’re down to the wire with this. We should all be working with the same (and accurate) information. Of course, in a perfect world, we shouldn’t even be talking PCBs and dumpsites.

    1. Nancy F says:

      MIchelle-
      Thank you so much for once again trying to get all parties involved to “stick to the facts”. No one ever wins political debates with just emotion, rumor, and innuendo(unless of course, you are Donald Trump!).

    2. Tuffer8 says:

      Specifics of the designated dump sites being used currently for other portions of the site are on the EPA website here: https://www.epa.gov/ge-housatonic/sitewide-documents-ge-pittsfieldhousatonic-river-site under GE Off-Site Waste Shipment Notifications.

    3. Tuffer8 says:

      Specifics of the designated dump sites being used currently for other portions of the site are on the EPA website here: https://www.epa.gov/ge-housatonic/sitewide-documents-ge-pittsfieldhousatonic-river-site under GE Off-Site Waste Shipment Notifications

  3. Sage says:

    Housatonic River Initiative has a facebook page here to get information:
    https://www.facebook.com/HousatonicRiverInitiative/

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Hi Sage: Yes, I’ve posted on the Facebook page and communicated with Tim Gray directly. I was directed to the EPA site. This is fine but having as much information as possible at meetings would be helpful. At the next meeting, the first comment/question out of my mouth will be concerning these dumpsites. According to my research (and assuming that research is accurate, and that is why it would be great to have this information available be helpful so we all stay on the same page), the Michigan site I refer to in my post above is the Wayne Disposal Inc., 49350 North I94 Service Drive, in Belleville, MI. By the way, my husband is from Michigan. The site has been around since 1957. Here’s a link to an interesting article on this designated dumpsite. Ann Arbor News, July 23, 2012: http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/hazardous-waste-landfill-near-willow-run-airport-begins-expansion/
      Check it out. It’s not pretty but it’s in an industrial area. But Housatonic residents need to keep this in mind–there seems to be “industrial” spread in Housatonic as well. We need to be careful.
      If you look at the EPA site, the listing of this information is daunting. You need to know what you are looking for and PCB science has its own language. I searched for “chemical waste landfills” resulting with the one (Wayne) in Michigan and two in Texas. There were also two facilities in Texas that used incinerators.
      I did not see a disposal site listing posted on HRI Facebook, but I could have missed it or it was just uploaded which is great.
      In the end, it’s a shame were even talking about PCBs, toxins, and dumpsites!
      Thanks, Sage.

      1. Sage says:

        Michelle, thanks. I was posting the HRI facebook link for anyone, not just in response to your question, but i’m glad you’re in touch with Tim Gray and know of the HRI page. I also support having full knowledge about everything that we possible can, including specifically about other proposed dump sites, and to know if they actually are in the backyards of poor people or are somewhere else. Thanks for your research. I also agree that it’s a shame that we are even forced to be talking about poisons instead of the coming of Spring! That’s one more part of the huge crime against humanity perpetrated by GE and Monsanto here. All our lives are in the shadow of poisons and we lose people we love, and we are stressed by spending time fighting an evil instead of reveling in the glory of life and the world!

        There is some logic to putting persistent toxins in one place, but i am concerned that it’s crazy to move 10,000 tons of sediment (or however much the mass is) across the continent by rail, using tons of fossil fuels, with risk of spillage on other lands, and then to put it somewhere else where it’s supposed to remain forever.

        I support processing the sediment. Even if it takes a few more years, we can identify processes that use microbes and perhaps heat and other means to separate and neutralize the PCBs into non-toxic products. That is the right thing to do, and we can do it. We need Monsanto and General Electric to fund a solid program to do that, with the people of the area in control and steering the ship. We need to drive the EPA instead of the other way around, and do this right. We need to demand the funding from the criminals who ruined our river, and to demand the control to do it right.

  4. Cathy Fracasse says:

    Though I was unable to attend the meeting, I note from the pictures the decidedly older demographic of those attending (by that I mean older than 30s). In order to truly have impact, it seems essential to bring our younger neighbors into this discussion, and into the ensuing fight. Teenagers, twenty-somethings, even thirty-somethings, have lived their entire lives with a river that is both beautiful and deadly. They now look forward to decades during which their own children will grow up with the same. We need to find ways to engage these younger residents – with their passion, their intelligence and their energy – and develop a full strategy for taking on GE and their ilk. Whether by attending meetings, writing letters or actively protesting, let’s find those levers that will allow us to identify solutions that will mitigate this plague on our community.

    1. Mary Kate McTeigue says:

      I was at the meeting and surprised how many young people were in attendance. I personally know many of them and was encouraged by the turnout of Berkshire County’s next generation.

      1. Cathy Fracasse says:

        Thanks for responding Mary Kate. As I said I wasn’t there, but am heartened by your observation.

  5. Eric says:

    If this issue doesn’t unite people of all political stripes in this region, then nothing can. As someone noted, absolutely nobody around here has been heard to say “This dump is a good idea”.

  6. Michelle Loubert says:

    I forgot to mention in my post regarding the dumpsite in Michigan, the Wayne Disposal Inc. site. The company’s site notes “transporter procedures,” such as the use of a “half-face respirator” in the cabs of their trucks, only eat and drink in designated areas, and “if the 60 minute average wind speed is 20 mph or more, or if the instantaneous wind speed is 25 mph or more” Wayne Disposal “cannot accept any loads.” So I’m thinking it’s probably not a good idea to plop one of these sites surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

    1. Michael Wise says:

      The Michigan site’s location is a good point of comparison. Per Google Earth, that operation comes within about 1000 feet of a garden apartment complex. But what looks like the principal “dump”-landfill on the site is nearly 2000 feet away, and more than a mile from another neighborhood. Otherwise, the 400 acre site is surrounded by a small airport. For comparison, the center of the proposed site in Housatonic is about 1000 feet from homes along Van Deusenville Road or Park Street. That means that a landfill here would necessarily be much closer to residences than this one in Michigan is.

      1. Michelle Loubert says:

        Thanks, Michael. Really hard to visualize the disposal site in Michigan using Google View. The information above is a big help. That’s why I think it is important to talk about the “designated” dumpsites. As I mention above, this site has been around since 1957. It doesn’t make sense to create another site in Berkshire County — we’ve been there, done that with Hill 78.

  7. Mickey Friedman says:

    A bit of perspective here. Tim Gray and others at HRI have been working on this issue since the early 1980s, finally forming HRI in 1994. Tim and others have volunteered thousands of hours. I’m sorry that HRI doesn’t have comprehensive information about TSCA-approved landfills across the country but that’s not really the mandate. That mandate rests with the US EPA and it’s important that citizens begin to interact with the government agencies mandated to protect them and start asking them questions. HRI has a wealth of information about what has happened at Power Transformer, about the PCB-contamination of Pittsfield neighborhoods etc., about Hill 78 and the Housatonic River and am sure will share that. If you’re frustrated with the GE/Pittsfield Housatonic River website of the EPA let them know about it. They re-did their website and changed the url of just about every important document HRI and the public relies on. Lastly if you start to do some research you’ll discover what HRI learned along the way – that you have to fight for the most important information. For years GE, Massachusetts DEQE and then DEP and the EPA vastly underestimated the amount of PCBs in the river system. And even today I challenge you to find the total number of PCBs that exist in river sediments and bank soils in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Patience please … and direct your annoyance to those who might deserve it most.

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Mickey: If you are referring to my statements above, you’re misinterpreting my comments. In order for those of us who are fairly new to this and not having spent years in the PCB trenches, we’re trying to catch up in order to be most effective in joining forces to fight the fight. We’re doing research, learning PCB terminology, reviewing documents, and more so we can get up to speed. At the meetings I have attended, references are made to various issues, one of which are the designated dumpsites. In each meeting I’ve been at, the designated dumpsites have been brought up and comments made that the sites are probably in poor neighborhoods, etc. and thus, transporting PCBs out of Berkshire County to those sites is the wrong thing to do. At these meetings, these statements have not been addressed with any additional information. I’ve only asked if the location of the sites mentioned in Texas and Michigan are, indeed, in low income, poor, underprivileged neighborhoods or in no man’s land or something in between. That is all. Over the years, this question must have come up before, and I’m assuming there is something somewhere that addresses this question, and I think I found that information. But being unfamiliar with the EPA site and related sites, new to the PCB issue, information on those sites can be confusing. Heck, I wasn’t even certain what to type into the EPA search engine! A force is now erupting regarding the Rest of River work and the proposed dumpsites. The HRI site and Facebook page will be regularly accessed as a resource for information and direction. This is a good thing! Accurate information will be a necessary tool as opposition moves forward. Incorrect or misinformation isn’t going to help. You refer to the years and years Tim and others have spent on this issue (thank you!). These people know where to go to get the information they need. For them, it must now be second nature but for us newcomers, it’s not that intuitive or easy. That is why I wasn’t 100 percent certain the information I gathered from the EPA site was accurate (thanks, Michael for checking it out). If information is gleaned from the HRI site, newcomers to this fight can go into this battle with confidence knowing that they are learning from the most reliable and accurate resources. Mickey, I apologize if I irritated you, but there is a learning curve here. Questions are going to be asked over and over and over again. Newcomers should be encouraged, educated, directed, tutored, etc. Not scolded.

      1. Sage says:

        I think that nobody is scolding newcomers, and nobody should also scold the old-timers who have spent 30 years doing this…. both are valuable and neither is to blame for this situation. Old timers need to be respected and admired for the great sacrifice of time and energy they’ve put into this, and newcomers need to be accepted as they are, and welcomed openly, and given all the resources possible from the old-timers, and also allowed to have a voice that is not “lesser” just because they’ve not been in this for 30 years now. There is much to say for experience and knowledge gained in 30 years, and there is also much to say for the new energy and fresh perspective of newcomers.

        Michelle, you have already contributed a good deal of knowledge about the Michigan proposed dump site and i’m grateful for this. Others have also commented to contribute more such knowledge.

        I suggest we could use a “Wiki” for a knowledge base about this… like Wikipedia but under our own control. So people like me who love to edit knowledge can help to make a comprehensive knowledge base that grows organically with many people’s input. Let’s do this. I have a lot of experience editing on Wikipedia and i can make this work, given the server space at HRI or somewhere.

        Mainly, though — young and old — newcomers and old hands — let’s be united and appreciate our gifts and our sacrifices and our good energy and move into the future united to fight the evils that have done this, and renew our land.

  8. GerryGB says:

    Great reporting as usual Heather. What would we do without you ?
    Just a slight correction: The reference to New Canaan, NY should be Connecticut.

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