On the toxic trail of PCB pollution with eco-warrior Tim Gray

General Electric proposes to stash PCBs from the river in three landfills: one next to Woods Pond in Lenox Dale, another near the Mass Pike in Lee, close to Goose Pond, and the third adjacent to the Rising Pond dam in Housatonic.

Pittsfield — Tim Gray says he’s pretty sure his phones are tapped, and knows for a fact he is followed from time to time when he drives near the former General Electric Company’s plant here.

“GE cars are always black,” he tells me as we both turn to look out the rear of his minivan to see who’s driving a car that creeps up behind us. He says GE cars tend to be late model SUVs and Town Cars. This car swerves around us. It’s white — we sigh.

Housatonic River Initiative founder Tim Gray, at Woods Pond in the shadow of October Mountain. Photo: Heather Bellow
Housatonic River Initiative Executive Director Tim Gray, at Woods Pond in the shadow of October Mountain. Photo: Heather Bellow

Welcome to the world of an eco-warrior. At 62, Lee resident, greenhouse owner and musician Tim Gray has been at it since he first took Housatonic River samples during an environmental science field study in the 1970s. Now he’s Executive Director of Housatonic River Initiative (HRI), one of many tireless crusaders trying to make GE clean up polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) discharged and dumped from its transformer manufacturing plant between the 1930s and 1979.

I’m riding shotgun as Gray takes me on his “toxic tour” of GE’s long and winding trail of heavy contamination and one of its potential Berkshire County PCB dump sites, as it fights the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) over some of the agency’s Rest of River cleanup directives. The Housatonic River Initiative is sponsoring a community discussion of General Electric’s demand that PCBs dredged from the Rest of the River be sequestered in three toxic waste landfills in the Berkshires. The meeting will take place Tuesday, March 15, at 7 p.m. in Housatonic at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire on Main Street.

We begin at Gray’s Lee farmhouse and drive up the curves of the river valley through Lee, Lenox Dale, Lenox and eventually land at GE’s plant in Pittsfield. Along the way he tells me those downstream samples he took from the river in the 70s revealed extensive PCB contamination of sediment, surrounding floodplains, and even frogs, and he and his classmates sent them to the EPA, who blew them off as a bunch of idealistic kids. “They said we didn’t know what we were talking about,” he said.

Woods Pond, just above the dam.
Woods Pond, just above the dam. Photo: Heather Bellow

But the problem soon revealed itself another way: standard testing of milk for sale in Connecticut grocery stores identified PCBs that were traced back to the Devos Farm in Lenox Dale, where Gray is now pointing to the Lane Construction company’s gravel yards. The company owns land close to Woods Pond, a proposed site for a PCB dump.

We stop at the Woods Pond dam, just below the beloved Woods Pond hunting and fishing area along October Mountain State Forest, the largest in the state. The dam has kept most of the PCBs from going downstream, and so the area is heavily contaminated. It is another reason for the impasse between GE and the EPA, with GE arguing over how much sediment it should dredge from the pond. There we met a man who said he had seen three Bald Eagles the day before, and Gray says he sees them behind his house, and in this area all the time.

“This is our greatest state park and GE has polluted the entire base of it,” Gray says. “It’s these small workingman communities like lots of other sites in America that are targets of dumps.”

Decker Boat Launch in Lenox. Photo: Heather Bellow
Decker Boat Launch in Lenox. Photo: Heather Bellow

We stop at the Decker Boat Launch, where Gray tells me that on March 21, Denny Alsop will repeat his 1988 canoe trip from the Berkshires to Boston to draw attention to the lack of thorough PCB cleanup and GE’s determination to establish local toxic waste dumps. It is estimated GE’s Rest of River cleanup will only remove about 25 percent of PCBs in river sediment and floodplain.

And as we leave the boat launch, he says HRI’s mission is simple. “We fight for what’s in the Clean Water Act: fishable, swimmable waters. The right to clean water.”

But HRI uses a more direct approach, he says, that has ruffled enough large plumage to draw the unwelcome attention of a certain large corporation. “Sometimes we use methods that allow us to expose something that is told to the EPA or DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and they’re doing nothing.”

Moss-covered, PCB_saturated brick in the Brattle Brook Conservation Area in Pittsfield.
Moss-covered, PCB-saturated brick in the Brattle Brook Conservation Area in Pittsfield. Photo: Heather Bellow

There are the “tens of thousands” of 4-x-4 creosote bricks GE used to soak up the PCB-laden insulating fluid (named Pryanol, manufactured by Monsanto) that spilled onto the factory floor from the transformers being built and repaired at the company’s sprawling Pittsfield facility. The bricks were then dumped all over the place, he said, most notably in a former city dump in the woods at Brattle Brook Conservation Area in Pittsfield, where he will later take me. “The bricks drive me crazy,” he says. “There was so much spillage in the GE plant that the floors were coated with PCBs.” He says he has told the EPA the bricks are popping out of the hillside, and for a time, he said, children from the nearby neighborhood had built a fort with them. The next time he came back, he said, it was a pile of charcoal.

“We’re all burnt out,” he says of his colleagues who for decades have been fighting for a PCB-free environment. He makes a few wild driving moves near the Pittsfield line, then continues: “And all the burnt-outs at HRI have trouble keeping up with me. I’m sort of a crazy guy. I fight for a clean river.”

We’ve just entered Pittsfield, or the “fifth dimension,” as Gray calls it, with HRI humor that Gray and his colleagues use to stay sane amid what Gray says is a sort of alternate GE reality world where GE’s influence and money in the city has, for instance, made the PCB-induced cancer risk disappear from official records. He says there is lots of anecdotal evidence of cancer clusters, that he and other activists say the Pittsfield medical community has minimized. There is even a 1990s EPA neighborhood flyer that said one way to reduce exposure is to limit children’s playtime in PCB-contaminated dirt.

Tim Gray and HRI President Dave Gibbs at his house in the Lakewood District of Pittsfield, looking over the 'scary file.' Photo: Heather Bellow
Tim Gray and HRI President Dave Gibbs at his house in the Lakewood District of Pittsfield, looking over the ‘scary file.’ Photo: Heather Bellow

We’re sitting in HRI President Dave Gibbs’ driveway in Lakewood, just south of the GE plant. This entire neighborhood had PCBs oozing through it, and still does, though it was essentially capped in the 1990s. A carpenter and former GE worker, Gibbs was one at the center of the battle, and said GE went on a “big ad campaign” and offered homeowners “perks” during the cleanup. But Gibbs said he “gave up $10,000 in sidewalks and plantings to get more scoops of PCB dirt out. I wanted the whole yard clean.”

Gibbs had, at this time, put a video camera on his roof to film EPA and DEP work in the field beyond his house, a place where “GE used to come every night and dump.” The company dumped so many barrels there that the EPAs metal detection equipment, in which metal would show up as red, showed nearly the entire field red.

“They were just gonna cap it,” Gibbs said, with the barrels and chemicals still in the ground. “But we caught them.” Gibbs shows me a picture — from his “scary file”– of a bulldozer lifting barrels out of the ground.

HRI gets calls about “a lot of dogs dying around here,” Gray says, and Gibbs tell me the story of his own dog, who died from a blood vessel cancer that the former dean of veterinary medicine at Cornell University said “dogs don’t normally get.” The dean’s name was Fred Quimby, and Gibbs had sent him some of his dog’s remains for testing. The day after Quimby reported it to the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), “he was gone,” Gibbs said. “He lost his job.”

“It’s another conspiracy,” Gray tells me as we leave Gibbs’ house. “I hate conspiracies but there’s just so much bullshit that’s going on.

“GE put out a document,” he says, “about how to handle residents and environmentalists.”

We drive by a baseball diamond, where just beyond it was the home of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” what GE workers called the plant’s PCB incinerator. “It turned out none of the residents knew about it.” And PCBs, when incinerated, turn into dioxins, which are even worse.

Nearer the plant we enter the old Italian-American neighborhood where many GE workers lived with plumes of PCB contamination beneath their homes, bakeries and corner bars, and where PCB-polluted water came up through basement sump pumps. We pass one of those bars, the owner of which once used a crowbar to lift up a manhole and show Gray the PCBs oozing under the streets, a scene documented in local filmmaker Mickey Friedman’s tale of woe, Good Things to Life. 

We turn a corner onto a lovely street, a slice out of Americana. “It’s the heart of PCB-ville,” Gray says. I begin to understand why Gray and his compatriots frequently launch into humor.

“Over there is what we called the “44 parts-per-thousand house,” Gray says, pointing at a home whose yard had an astronomical PCB reading.

“That white house?” I say.

At right, the pocket park created when a house on a PCB-polluted parcel was deemed too contaminated to preserve. Photo: Heather Bellow
At right, the pocket park created when a house on a PCB-polluted parcel was deemed too contaminated to preserve. Photo: Heather Bellow

“No – that!” Gray points to an empty lot next to it, where the property was so contaminated that the house had to be torn down. “GE said they would make a park there, so we called it the ‘PCB Pocket Park’. ”

The neighbors, including Al Bertelli, a former GE worker and HRI’s Vice President, couldn’t resist adding a satirical touch to the “park.”

“We put up a veggie stand with ‘caustic cucumbers’ and ‘toxic tomatoes,’” Gray said, “and one day a black limo or Town Car came by and took it all. Al and the neighbors rebuilt it right away.”

Down the street is Goodrich Pond, where children used to fish, and where in the late 1990s, Gray says, “the Department of Health wouldn’t put signs up.” I asked him why. “It all just got to be too much for people.” That’s when Gibbs made signs with pictures of deformed fish and put them near the pond.

I now find myself at the edge of a forest at Brattle Brook Conservation Area in southeast Pittsfield, trying to find a way in that doesn’t involve bush-whacking in tick territory. We find the trodden path down to what was a city dump, where former GE workers told HRI they disposed of contaminated factory garbage, including those creosote bricks that make Gray crazy. We work our way down, and see some industrial-looking garbage, but mostly more recent evidence of drinking and fires. We’re searching for those bricks, that Gray says come “like magic out of this hill.”

We find a handful of them. Some look like they’ve been burned and some are moss-covered. It really bothers him that this hasn’t been cleaned up. “If kids are playing with the bricks then you have to take it seriously.”

I ask him, if he could have his way, what would he have GE do about all of it. “Clean up everything that’s identified now and far into the future. Don’t walk away.”

Besides the dump site in Lenox Dale, GE wants to drop PCBs from the river into two other landfills: an area near the Mass Pike in Lee, close to Goose Pond, and another adjacent to the Rising Pond dam in Housatonic. The company already owns the Housatonic parcel. Gray says it’s going to be tough stopping these local dumps. The original federal and state consent decree did not “identify dumps,” Gray says. It only said GE had to clean up. It was later that the EPA said the waste should be shipped to certified facilities out of state, which GE is fighting because it says will cost it $250 million more.

Tim Gray at the Allendale School playground. The ridge rising beyond the playground is Hill 78, the huge mound that had contained toxic waste from GE's operations and where GE was allowed to deposit PCB's dredged from the river in Pittsfield. Photo: Heather Bellow
Tim Gray at the Allendale School playground. The ridge rising beyond the playground is Hill 78, the huge mound that had contained toxic waste from GE’s operations and where GE was allowed to deposit PCB’s dredged from the river in Pittsfield. Photo: Heather Bellow

I start to feel hope drain out of me, when Gray hits the gas and heads for PCB ground zero, the plant itself.

“Everything around the plant is capped, and the contamination extends far out from the plant,” Gray says, noting that the contamination goes as far out as the border of Dalton, the next town over to the east. “There’s the softball complex, right on top of capped PCB barrels. HRI thinks maybe 500 or 600 of them.”

We talk about landfill liner “warranties” — another source of jokes –– and we pull to the side of the road to see if we can find the well caps that mark an aquifer that had to be shut down from contamination.

We are now heading for the crème-de-la-crème of the tour: the Hill 78 dump. On our way Gray sees if we can get followed by a “GE car” as we head down the road next to the Altresco Power Plant’s Cyclone fence. The Altresco plant was built in 1994 in a heavily contaminated area, and right next to Hill 78, which used to be a ravine that GE workers filled until it was loaded with all kinds of toxic waste before the PCBs went in on top.

For the first time today, Gray gets quiet, and the humor is gone. I soon see why. We pass through another all-American neighborhood to get to our final destination: Hill 78, looming just beyond the Allendale Elementary School playground and baseball diamond, the Altresco stacks next to it. I feel myself sink.

“It’s very sad that the EPA puts dumps in neighborhoods,” Gray says. “The EPA are the only people who can help us.”

We stand on the playground and stare at the entire scene like it’s a sick joke. The soil we’re standing on had to be excavated 10 years after Hill 78 was capped due to a landfill liner that, as it turned out, was not meant to be used for hazardous waste. We look for the air monitors, installed near the playground to detect airborne PCB levels. We see two cages we think might be where they live, but for some reason the equipment had been removed.

“The EPA are good people,” Gray says. “But they get caught up in the bureaucracy.”

We head home, talking about all the checks GE has passed out over the years and continues to write to gain influence. Right now, GE is talking to the EPA about how to compensate these rural towns for the PCP dumps it’s proposing, and local residents are outraged.

“There’s a lot of institutional denial going on,” Gray says of the contamination’s impact. “The plant was way out of control,” he adds. And PCB contaminated waste is still oozing out of the plant, and also being discharged into the river at low levels, with a special permit to do so.

As we near the Pittsfield town line into Lenox, Gray says if I close my eyes it might help me leave the “fifth dimension.”

“I’m so used to it,” he says. “I just keep my eyes open.”


Housatonic River Initiative is hosting a community discussion on Tuesday March 15, 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire in Housatonic, next to the Ramsdell Library.