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No PCB dump in the Berkshires: Popular resistance begins

In a letter to the editor, Pooja Prema of Great Barrington, Mass., writes, "I advocate for leaving the river alone until more effective natural remediation technologies are discovered within the next two to 10 years, which could be done in situ (without dredging). This technology most likely already exists"

To the editor:

Today I woke up thinking about the rivers and #MeToo — that the Earth herself is saying “me too!” The rivers of our world are in threat. They have been and still are the dumping place for civilization’s manufactured chemical wastes. Our local Housatonic River is once again faced with an insane prospect thought up by people who ultimately are disconnected from life, men and women who believe that human beings can “fix” nature better than nature itself.

For the local town governments and organizations to take it upon themselves to decide the future ecological and public heath of an entire bio-region and people without THEIR CONSENT is an atrocity. We shouldn’t be surprised because this is business as usual. All but Mass DEP and Housatonic River Initiative (HRI), which has been working to protect and clean up the river for the last 40 years, signed the settlement. This alone should be a glaring red flag that the settlement is a bad idea. As I said at the Great Barrington meeting on Thursday night, the town governments need to hear from the youth, the pregnant women, the young families. I am tired of my life and our lives being decided for us by a majority of old white men. The same goes for my body and the body of the Earth.

The General Electric Corporation, with a decades-long history of dumping effluents and failing on its promises to clean up its disasters, has made a “settlement” with the EPA and local Berkshire town governments to dredge Woods Pond and areas of the river in Lenox Dale and Lee and to create a dump the size of five football fields beside state forest to contain most of the dredged PCB-containing sediment. It claims the “plastic liner” will stand the test of time, despite that there is zero evidence it can or will. It also claims that leachate will not be released back into the area but rather contained and then carbon-treated. The proposed site is only 1,000 feet from the river. The further irony is that the manufacturing of this same plastic is most certainly polluting an ecosystem somewhere else. Some of the dredged material will be trucked all the way to Detroit, Michigan, to a toxic dump most likely next to other working-class families. It’s the same old story — governments selling out to corporations and assuring the public that “we did the best thing for everyone involved.” Yet when faced with factual questions, the EPA’s answers are flimsy, often beginning with “uhhhhhh, well….”

The overwhelming majority of people in southern Berkshire County are angry and upset at this. We believe that the local town officials sold us out, and they did — in closed-door meetings with GE and the EPA that lasted a year and a half. They bought into GE’s scare tactics and made a settlement that saves GE a mere $50 million (chump change for a mega-corporation.) Meanwhile, many feel cheated of a vote. And we deserve a vote. The town officials have refused a public vote so far because they feared losing in a lengthy and costly legal battle with GE in the higher courts and, I believe, because they knew a public vote would fail. Having a dump here runs the real risk of ground-water contamination and air pollution with PCBs for years so that local residents near the dump site will not even be able to spend much time outside their homes or garden vegetables or fruit in their backyards. Air pollution can reach up to 3 miles. GE’s previous track records — including the toxic dump created next to the elementary school in Allendale — are proof that GE, like all large corporations, is not to be trusted. They have to be fought all the way up to the highest court until the local communities get exactly what they want, which is NO DUMP. They want us to believe we can’t win because they know we can.

The Housatonic River along Route 183 in Glendale.

Many people want the dredged PCB material to be entirely shipped out of state. I myself oppose this because I don’t want it shipped to another low-income community in Detroit or elsewhere, which will have to suffer for generations with more toxic leaching. I don’t believe two wrongs make a right, that using massive amount of fossil fuels to dredge and then create a dump or transport waste to another state makes any sense. It’s just creating more problems down the line for local people and for others elsewhere. The whole thing reveals to me the constant state of restlessness and fear in which most of us live. We are too easily willing to compromise for half solutions that don’t really make sense, too afraid to ask for and stand for what we really want. It also reveals, as Krysia Andrews said at the Great Barrington meeting, a profound “lack of imagination.” Because the completion of a dump here could take a minimum of 15 years and a maximum that is unknown, I advocate for leaving the river alone until more effective natural remediation technologies are discovered within the next two to 10 years, which could be done in situ (without dredging). This technology most likely already exists; it just needs to be tried. HRI has had conferences on this in the past and has communicated with companies that wanted to offer remediation technology.

The Great Barrington meeting was not nearly as packed as the Lee meeting, because unlike last time, there is no proposed dump in Housatonic. I was sad to see the low turnout because the reality is this river, our water, our shared ecology, is all of our responsibility. What happens upstream affects all the life downstream and vice versa. If you are reading this, I encourage you to get informed and get involved in this local resistance. Let’s get loud and creative. It takes all of us, not just a few. The dump is not a done deal. And I don’t believe it’s going to happen, not unless we let it. In the end, when asked, I was happy to see that many local elected officials — including most if not all of the Great Barrington Selectboard — were willing to take GE to the high courts to prevent it from creating another dump here.

EPA’s Bryan Olson addressing the Great Barrington session on the Rest of River cleanup plan. Photo: David Scribner

Tellingly, at the very end of the meeting, a woman asked the EPA’s Bryan Olson, director of the Office of Site Remediation, what the EPA’s overall percentage of winning or losing in court against corporations was, to which he replied, “Well, we usually win.” Moral here: We can win. And we will.

Here are a few things you can do if you want to stop the dump from being built:

1) Call the secretary of state at (800) 392-6090 or email share that citizens are seeking protection for warrant articles that we are concerned some select boards might try to block.

Call the attorney general, (617) 953-2540, or email and share that there are concerns about potential open meeting law violations, and that the selectboards have not yet released executive session minutes for completed litigation.

Call representatives and senators; I know that many are feeling upset by their public support for this settlement, but it’s still worth calling and telling them what you as a constituent want. If you write, share the letter!

2) Write to your selectboard! Go to your town’s website and you’ll find either a comment submission form or an email. Share what you write to inspire others!

3) Show up at your next selectboard meeting, share how you feel about this deal. Call the clerk first to ensure there is public comment time on the agenda.

Sheffield, Monday, March 2, 7 p.m.

— Great Barrington, Monday, March 9, 7 p.m. *this March 9 meeting will be very important, as this is where the person getting this to a vote in Great Barrington will have to persuade the selectboard to vote in favor. Go support her!

— Stockbridge, Friday, Feb 27, 6:30 p.m.

— Lee, Tuesday, March 3, 7 p.m.

— Lenox, Wednesday, March 4, 7 p.m.

4) Come to the next public meeting event in the Pittsfield Thursday, March 5, at 6 p.m. at Herberg Middle School.

5) Share articles, talk to anyone who will listen; spread the word! People STILL don’t know this is even happening.

6) If you are a writer, please get more letters in to the editors of the paper. Fact checkers from HRI are available to anyone who needs.


Pooja Prema
Great Barrington


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