The Housatonic River is a favorite of New England fly-fishers, kayakers, and hikers. Flowing through the rolling hills of Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the river makes an idyllic backdrop to the region’s famous fall foliage. It meanders under covered bridges and through Connecticut, eventually emptying into the Long Island Sound.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that behind the scenes of that serene, beautiful natural world is a severely polluted system,” says Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
The “WARNING” signs dotting the river’s banks in Berkshire County hint at the less-than-tranquil reality teeming below the surface: “HOUSATONIC RIVER FISH & WATERFOWL CONTAMINATED WITH PCBs. DO NOT EAT.”
First synthesized in the late 19th century, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are pervasive chemicals once used in hundreds of industrial applications, from plasticizing paint to insulating electrical equipment. General Electric was a major user of PCBs, including at its riverside plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, from the 1930s until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the production of the chemicals in the late 1970s. By then, GE had already discharged an estimated 600,000 pounds of PCBs into the Housatonic.
And this was wasn’t GE’s only instance of PCB contamination in a northeastern river. The company also dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, triggering a high-profile legal battle that NRDC has been involved with since the 1970s—and is still fighting today.
There’s good reason to fight so long and hard on the contamination. PCBs—all 200-plus types of them—are, to varying degrees, toxic to people and wildlife. “PCBs are just thoroughly horrible,” says Dan Raichel, an NRDC staff attorney. Multiple studies have proved the chemicals cause cancer in animals, and the EPA classifies them as probable human carcinogens. PCBs can also do significant harm to the immune and endocrine systems, affect reproduction, impair neurological development, elevate blood pressure, and cause skin rashes that can last for years. “It pretty much runs the gamut in terms of illness-causing,” Raichel says.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Berkshire communities, state governments, and environmental groups are still pushing GE to clean up its mess—a responsibility it has been avoiding. Decades may seem like a long time for contaminants to linger in a moving body of water. But PCBs were deliberately designed to persist under conditions that would cause other molecules to break down. “And persist,” Raichel says, “is exactly what they do in the environment.”
PCBs bind to soil, sediment, and the fatty tissues of animals. From there they work their way up the food chain, starting with the small invertebrates that find their food in the riverbed and eventually accumulating in the bigger fish and waterbirds that eat them. People living near the former GE plant in Pittsfield can be exposed to PCBs when they come into direct contact with contaminated soil or river sediment, consume contaminated fish, or even eat crops grown in the Housatonic floodplain.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health warns against eating fish, frogs, turtles, or ducks from the river, and though the Housatonic is a popular recreational fishing destination, it’s strictly catch and release. “It’s a lost resource to people in Berkshire County,” Gaherty says. The state of Connecticut, too, regularly releases advisories on eating Housatonic fish.
But even if you’ve never supped from this river—or live nowhere near it—you almost certainly have PCBs in your body. Yes, you. To add to the list of their nightmarish qualities, certain PCBs can volatilize, or evaporate into the air, where they can be inhaled or spread by weather systems and fall back down to the ground in rain or snow. Wind and ocean currents have facilitated their long-distance travel around the world—not even denizens of the poles or the bottom of the Marianas Trench have escaped the reach of PCBs.
In short: Once PCBs enter the environment, it’s not easy to get them out.
GE, a $260 billion company, has used its considerable resources to argue that it shouldn’t get them out. “GE has been digging its heels in the whole way,” says Dennis Regan, the Berkshire director for the Housatonic Valley Association’s Water Protection division. And the company’s reasoning has shifted over the years. Originally, GE contradicted the prevailing science by claiming there was no evidence that PCBs are harmful to human health. As pressure from the EPA and affected towns grew, GE changed tactics, arguing that disturbing the river sediment in a cleanup effort would make the contamination worse.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA, and GE managed to finalize a consent decree requiring GE to clean its PCBs from the Housatonic. Since then, the company has dredged the first two miles downstream of the Pittsfield plant, along with some other properties nearby, including an elementary school playground.
Slight progress is still progress, but 125 miles of contaminated river still remain. The EPA unveiled a $613 million plan last October that would span 13 years and require GE to dredge another 10 miles.
“These environmental battles can take a long time,” says Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney at NRDC who worked on the Hudson case against GE 40 years ago. And with only a partial cleanup effort for that river completed, the PCB levels in its fish are still not safe for human consumption. “It’s always an uphill fight to get companies to take responsibility for their pollution and to make real headway,” Chasis says.
And sure enough, GE is again pushing back against the EPA’s Housatonic plan. “This is their M.O.,” Gaherty says. “Delay and fight, delay and fight—they’re just hoping to wear everybody down so they can get away with a lesser cleanup.”
The latest point of contention is where the PCBs should go once removed from the river. Under the EPA’s plan, GE must take the contaminated soil out of state to a licensed toxic waste facility. GE, one of the richest companies in the world, argues that doing so would be too expensive and recently took its complaints to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, an independent panel of judges sometimes referred to as the agency’s “Supreme Court.” GE’s preferred solution is to create a local PCB dump in the towns of Lee and Lenox or Great Barrington, something the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee—which represents the six most affected towns—is not happy about.
Complicating things further is Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator under President Trump. Because Pruitt has a history of siding with industry over public health, the future of the fight for the Housatonic’s remediation now looks more uncertain than ever.
Shortly before the Environmental Appeals Board hearing in June, the EPA circulated a memo saying it wanted to reopen negotiations with GE over the case. “Looks like Massachusetts is about to become Exhibit A in the Trump administration’s efforts to go easy on polluters,” Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer representing the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, told the Boston Globe at the time.
And now, those people await the board’s decision.
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