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River Art Project brings together professional environmentalists, eager public to raise funds for cleanup

The summer-long event combines a gallery space featuring paintings of the outdoors by local artists, environmental literature on display, and a live panel of speakers featuring prominent movers and shakers in the Housatonic River and Hudson River cleanup efforts.

Stockbridge — Through Sunday, Sept. 2, for the second summer in a row, the owners of the Schantz Galleries have hosted the River Art Project. Situated in the antique train station, the summer-long event combines a vibrant yet traditional gallery space featuring paintings of the outdoors by local artists, environmental literature on display, and a live panel of speakers featuring prominent movers and shakers in the Housatonic River and Hudson River cleanup efforts.

The project unites various factions of the Berkshires and nearby communities with the goal of protecting our natural waterways through data collection, education and direct challenges posed to federal, state, and local organizations and lawmakers.

Visitors to the gallery, which serves as a seasonal extension of the Schantz Galleries, will encounter the train station-turned-arts-space adorned with the paintings of six local landscape artists: Bart Elsbach, Michael Filmus, Harriette Joffe, Scott Prior, Jim Schantz and Gabrielle Senza. Most of the paintings on display feature local rivers, and a significant portion of the profits from painting sales go directly toward funding the Housatonic Valley Association and Riverkeeper, the latter of which was founded in 1966 to aid the cleanup of the Hudson River but now has offices across the globe.

Last summer’s River Art Project involved three lectures over the course of the season. This year, Schantz decided to combine the speakers into a single-evening event featuring three speakers and a moderator on the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 15.

Jim Schantz

“We have six artists this year. We have three returning from last year and three new,” said Jim Schantz, who launched the project, as the evening’s ceremonies commenced. “Harriette Joffe, Michael Filmus and Gabriel Senza. Harriette Joffe is an abstract painter whose paintings are river-inspired. We are contributing 75 percent of the net received from purchases [to local environmental cleanup projects] as we did last year.”

Each speaker brought a unique viewpoint to the event, which felt at times like an intimate college lecture and, at other times, like a vigorous town meeting.

“Paul Gallay has dedicated himself to the environmental movement since 1987, when he left the private practice of law and went to work for the New York State attorney general. In 1990, Paul began a 10-year stint at New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, where he brought hundreds of corporate and government polluters to justice,” explained Schantz. “Paul subsequently spent a decade in the land conservation movement before becoming Riverkeeper’s president in 2010. He’s held a number of teaching positions, including his current appointment with the Earth Institute at Columbia University.”

Gallay brought great tidings with him—the New York chapter of Riverkeeper was recently instrumental in securing a $2.9 billion grant for the state of New York to further the cleanup of contaminants from the Hudson River and other waterways in the New York City area. Gallay expressed the belief that the water surrounding the metropolis is clean enough for the there to be a beach in Manhattan.

Joining the dais was Lee native Tim Gray.

“Tim Gray is the Housatonic River Initiative’s executive director and the Housatonic Riverkeeper. As a student in natural resource science at UMass Amherst in the mid-1970s, he was part of the first testing effort that found PCB contamination in the river, before the EPA and the public acknowledged the issue,” said Schantz. “Ever since, especially after the founding of the Housatonic River Initiative in 1992, he’s been an essential part of the effort to hold General Electric accountable, including the current debate about GE’s hopes to deposit contaminants in three dumps along the river. Tim has brought environmental education about the river to area schools and colleges and has been relentless in keeping our community aware of the many complicated issues involved in the cleanup process.”

Rounding out the forum was Dennis Regan, another champion of local river cleanup.

“Dennis Regan joined the Housatonic Valley Association in 1999. As Berkshire director, he oversees HVA’s programs along the Housatonic River and its tributaries throughout Berkshire County, continuing PCB remediation discussions, responding to environmental threats in the watershed, creating awareness programs to help ensure better river protection and management, and collecting up-to-date data on the health of the watershed. He is currently on the board of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, the Berkshire Fish Hatchery, the advisory committee of Massachusetts Environmental Trust ecosystem grants, and has served as the president of the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition.”

The panel was moderated by Ruth Dinerman, a Berkshires-based environmentalist.

“For almost two decades, Ruth Dinerman has been working to improve the quality of life in Berkshire County. She has worked on numerous environmental and river issues, was briefly the executive director of the Housatonic River Restoration,” said Schantz. “Ruth has served on the boards of the Lee Land Trust and Laurel Hill Association.

Ruth Dinerman, standing right, and panelists, from left, Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay, Housatonic Valley Association Berkshire director Dennis Regan and Housatonic River Initiative director Tim Gray at an Aug. 15 panel discussion at the River Art Project in Stockbridge. Photo courtesy River Art Project

A stylishly dressed audience applauded as Dinerman was handed the microphone.

“Thank you all for being here. And thank you, Jim, for this fabulous space. It’s my honor to introduce each of you.”

Dinermen presented the audience with a brief professional biography of each of the panelists before asking each of them to present a five-minute introduction to their recent work. Gallay began.

“Riverkeeper has been around for 52 years. We were the first of what are now 340 Keepers worldwide. If you want to know what our values are, it comes down to three simple things: We are true to our community roots, we follow the data wherever it takes us and we don’t flinch when the going gets tough,” Gallay explained. “I have scars upon scars from the government saying, “stand down,” or “you’re being too aggressive.” Our job is to be a little too aggressive and that moves the middle and, the next thing you know, everybody’s being aggressive.”

Gallay described Riverkeeper’s recent endeavor of taking 5,000 water-quality samples along the Hudson and showing them to representatives of the state of New York. This data aided Riverkeeper’s involvement in New York state receiving a $2.9 billion cleanup grant, and that money is already going to work. Water quality has started improving and infrastructural improvements are being made. The latter involves efforts to remove antiquated dams that were constructed before we had a power grid and now serve only to block the natural flow of water and the wildlife it houses.

“The first one we helped take out was in the Troy area. It took all of three days before the fish found their way back up the Wyantskill. We have a contract to remove another four dams and we have another three contracts being negotiated,” said Gallay. “These are the two most important things we care about—reducing pollution and increasing the life of our rivers.”

The main thrust of his speech was that local cleanup groups can slay giants—Riverkeeper has helped hold General Electric, Dupont and other major corporations accountable when it comes to cleaning up their own messes.

“If you have popular will behind environmental protection, you can get political support for environmental protection and you can do things that you wouldn’t have thought possible.”

Dennis Regan then took the microphone and immediately echoed some of Gallay’s points.

“We have the same concerns. We have a dedicated group of people in the Berkshires who care about the Housatonic River and who want to do something about protecting it,” he said. “Wherever we can have a soapbox, we’ll go with people to not only talk about the river, but about what people can do to protect that river. That’s the key.”

The Housatonic Valley Association’s main goals are to collect data, educate locals and visitors to the area, and to create public awareness of contaminated waterways and how to best clean them up. Regan emphasized that, when people know about the polluted state of the Housatonic, they tend to attend town meetings and to spread their knowledge and concerns to people they know.

Visitors enjoy the River Art Project in Stockbridge. Photo: Sabine Vollmer von Falken

Much work remains to be done.

“We have a lot of issues in this watershed but we don’t really know a lot about many of them, so we’re getting volunteers to get trained and go out and collect baseline data about what the use and conditions of these rivers [the Housatonic and its tributaries] are,” said Regan. “It’s very effective in that there’s an anti-degradation clause in the Clean Water Act that says you cannot degrade a water source from the present conditions. We don’t know what the present conditions are, so we’re trying to establish that baseline condition so it can’t get worse than this.”

The HVA has been finding success through these methods. It receives calls from lawyers, realtors and land developers asking about the baseline condition of various properties and its legal ramifications.

“We have a little bit of leverage, which is great. And our water quality data is verified through the EPA and DEP [Department of Environmental Protection], so that’s a condition we can use to help convince people that you ought to clean up what you’re doing,” Regan continued. “The biggest key, the gel that keeps it all together, is community involvement. We want the community to realize that the Housatonic River is a positive resource rather than a negative resource. We should be using the Housatonic River as an economic base for a lot of our communities—to build trails along the river, to get people to come into the community and enjoy the river.”

From left, Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay, Housatonic Valley Association Berkshire director Dennis Regan and Housatonic River Initiative director Tim Gray at an Aug. 15 panel discussion at the River Art Project in Stockbridge. Photo courtesy River Art Project

Gray then took centerstage and outlined the struggles that the Housatonic River Initiative has faced while trying to force GE to clean PCBs from certain stretches of the Housatonic River, as well as land polluted by toxins in the river that runs through the heart of Pittsfield, since 1992 when he founded the organization. Despite a 2000 decree forcing GE to clean up contaminated water and soil in and around Pittsfield, the company has dragged its feet at every step.

“They have a thing called ‘monitored natural recovery,’ which is what they’re pushing big-time in everything they have, which is basically that you don’t do anything but test the PCBs once in a while and find out if they’re degrading over time,” said Gray. “There’s no real cleanup that goes on. It’s absurd.”

Gray also emphasized that the river is not the only problem when it comes to toxic contaminants in the area. Due to GE’s chemical dumping practices of the previous decades, the soil and air in many Pittsfield homes also contain dangerous toxins.

“We started testing homes in Pittsfield and finding out that they were contaminated. It was in the river and it’s up on the banks and in people’s homes,” said Gray. “Over 300 houses were tested and about 275 of them had to be excavated and cleaned up because they found out that kids had been playing on contaminated soil. And there were documents that showed that GE knew about those streets that they lived on were contaminated.”

A permit issued by the EPA in 2014 decreed that GE must put $600 million toward further cleanup. A loophole in this permit, however, allows GE to only do one third of the necessary work, which, Gray points out, means a perpetually polluted river. This is why the HRI is currently in court fighting the decision and pushing for a more comprehensive cleanup program by the massive corporation that was once headquartered in Pittsfield but is now based in Boston.

“What I’m trying to get at is that the first 2-mile cleanup that actually happened is a real good success story and we build our hope and our knowledge for what’s called a ‘rest of river,’ which is the next section of the river that has not been cleaned,” said Gray. “And we hope that we will be able to get EPA to enact another cleanup. We hope we can argue for more PCBs than they’re taking out right now. It’s a hard argument because GE lawyers are so good.”

After Gray’s conclusion, Dinerman opened the floor to questions. Hands shot up. The following hour was energetic and engaging, touching on issues ranging from cleanup and health to law and public opinion. Gallay, Regan and Gray all shared stories of success as well as stories of defeat and corporate scandal. The primary takeaway from the back-and-forth came down to on emphasis on community involvement, the collection of data, the targeted and unrelenting application of legal pressure, and finally the drive to never give up even in the face of transnational corporations and governmental agencies pushing back.

Gallay summarized his strategy for success thusly:

“Get the data and get the politicians to tell you what they’re going to do about it and camp out at their offices. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘I got my senator or congressman or state assemblyperson to respond just by not leaving their doorway with copies of this data.’ It actually works.”


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