Great Barrington — One of the favorite activities any politician can engage in is bestowing largess on constituents. And U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal got to do just that Friday (June 16) at three locations in the Berkshires.
Neal arrived at Town Hall to celebrate the awarding of a $300,000 Brownfields Community Wide Assessment grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Neal, a Democrat from Springfield, said he loved these types of events because “it gives me a chance to defend the federal government. Many issues demand a national solution.”
He noted that serious talk about the protecting the environment did not take place on the federal level until the mid 1960s, or about the same time the civil rights movement was gathering momentum.
“The water we drink is better, much of what we consume is cleaner and open space is in better condition,” said Neal.
Neal also emphasized his start in local government, commencing in 1973 as assistant to Springfield Mayor William C. Sullivan, followed five years later with his election to the City Council, serving as president of that body in 1979. He was elected mayor in 1983 and to Congress in 1988.
The grant application was prepared by Town Planner Chris Rembold and facilitated by Neal and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a longtime friend of Neal’s. Rembold could not attend the event because, ironically, he was attending a conference on remediating brownfields sites.
“We can leverage that money and make a really huge difference,” noted Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. “Without an environmental assessment, there is a barrier to development. This could turn them into community assets.” She added that brownfields sites are often “too overwhelming to deal with on the local level.”
“We want to get these properties back to productive purposes and generating tax revenues,” Neal added.
The funds will be used to perform Phase One and Phase Two environmental assessments of several properties, most of them in and around the village of Housatonic: the Housatonic School; Monument Mills; Rising Paper Mill; Cook’s Garage; and the site that once hosted Barbieri Lumber.
With the exception of Rising Mill, the remaining buildings are largely vacant. In the case of the Housatonic School, the town actually owns the building and is actively trying to sell it. The town suspects there are hazardous building materials present in the structures or on the grounds.
It is also possible a portion of the funds could be used to perform further investigation into the polluted Ried Cleaners property in downtown Great Barrington. And if there are funds remaining after the investigations, they could be used to perform actual remediation work, Tabakin said.
Tabakin said the resources will likely be directed “to the buildings most ready to utilize the funds.” The next step (after depositing the check) will be for the Select Board to evaluate which sites are ready to be studied while, she added, “weighing the pros and cons and priorities.”
“When I began, there was this quaint notion that the polluter pays,” Neal said. “The town wasn’t responsible for the contamination, and the new developer is not responsible either. And the party that is, they’re gone.”
Tabakin told Neal the EPA has been of great assistance to towns in the Berkshires in getting General Electric to honor its commitment to cleanse the Housatonic River of PCBs, which the company had dumped into the river from its sprawling Pittsfield plant until the substance was banned in 1979.
For his part, Neal took the opportunity to voice skepticism about the new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general sued the EPA 13 times before his nomination by President Donald Trump to head the agency.
“He has spent much of his career litigating in opposition to the environmental protections that have been hard earned,” said Neal, who is the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “So I’m suspect of his intentions but I do anticipate meeting with him. Any decision that would reverse the progress that is being made, and previously agreed to, would be a setback.”
Neal also weighed in on the violence this week in the Washington area that left one of his colleagues seriously wounded. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, was shot by a gunman Wednesday morning during a congressional baseball practice in Virginia. Two police officers, a congressional aide and a lobbyist were also injured. Scalise remains in critical condition.
Neal said he hopes “Congressman Scalise is going to get through this.” He also congratulated the Capitol Police and staffers for saving countless other lives.
“A lone gunman shows up, and asks behind the dugout, ‘Are these Democrats or Republicans?’ Then opens fire,” said Neal, who the night before his Berkshires visit played in the annual congressional baseball game, a charity fundraiser that attracted about 29,000 fans.
“With Steve Scalise, we probably don’t agree on where the sun rises and sets. But he’s a decent guy,” Neal continued. “And I think changing the tone of how we talk to each other has become important.”
“Who won the game?” Pignatelli asked.\
“The Dems,” replied Neal, adding that he played second base. “You know you’re really in trouble when the coach says, ‘How about right field?’ ”
Before leaving, Neal, who has come under some fire for not holding a town hall meeting in the Berkshires, emphasized that he is no stranger to the area and has held and attended many events in the Berkshires. He also had two sons who attended Salisbury School, half an hour south of Great Barrington in Connecticut.
“So I was through here all the time,” he said. ‘There’s nothing I look forward to more.”
And with that, Neal was off to Williamstown and North Adams, where he had more EPA money to give out.