GE donations to river group stir controversy

Critics see attempt to sway Housatonic River cleanup

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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The Facebook page popped onto the Web last month, pushing a controversial position on the PCB-poisoned Housatonic River in Western Massachusetts: cleaning it too thoroughly may actually harm the environment more.

Missing from the webpage of the Smart Clean-up Coalition was any explanation of the group’s origins or members. So a skeptical river advocate asked whether the group took money from General Electric, the company responsible for both the contamination and the cleanup — and another champion of a less aggressive approach.

“No,’’ the Smart Clean-up Coalition responded on the page. “We have no association with GE.’’

But they do. The coalition is an initiative of 1Berkshire, an economic development alliance that has received $300,000 from General Electric Co. in recent months, the group has since acknowledged.

Over the past two weeks, the alliance has given an evolving explanation for not disclosing its relationship with GE upfront. Both the group and GE insist the money had nothing to do with the creation of the Facebook page or the group’s position that an aggressive cleanup — which would include dredging, riverbank excavation, and truck traffic — could have the unintended effect of harming ecologically sensitive areas and tourism.

“Smart Clean-up Coalition is not working with GE in any way, shape, or form,’’ said Michael Daly, chairman of 1Berkshire and chief executive of Berkshire Hills Bancorp, which owns Berkshire Bank. He said GE’s donation, along with significant donations from other companies, will help 1Berkshire pursue its goal of economic growth. “No one was trying to hide anything.’’

But in the rolling Berkshire Hills, where the mighty Housatonic once powered much of the region’s economy, the controversy playing out on blogs and in local papers is highlighting GE’s still deep ties to the community, decades after its 254-acre transformer plant stopped leaking PCBs, a probable carcinogen, into the winding river. It is still considered one of the nation’s filthiest waterways.

The company, which once employed 14,000 people at its Pittsfield plant, retains a considerable constituency in the region, including many retirees who have investment holdings and receive benefits from the company. And GE continues to donate to nonprofits in the county.

The reach has bred suspicion of undue influence, especially now as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to issue a proposal this fall on how to clean the next 10 miles of the river, with a final decision expected soon after. GE has hired Bob Durand, the state’s former top environmental chief who once called for expedited cleanup of the river, to advocate for a “monitored natural recovery’’ designed to let the river essentially heal itself. The company launched a webpage about six months ago explaining that an aggressive cleanup could disrupt the fragile ecosystem in and around the Housatonic. It has also taken some local groups into the field to explain its point of view.

Gary Sheffer, a spokesman for GE, said the company is working to clean the river in the best possible way — and often donates money across the region. And it thought 1Berkshire a worthy cause.

“They are a regional organization designed to help the economy in that area,’’ Sheffer said. He said the money came with no strings attached. He also said the low-impact recovery suggested by the Smart Clean-up Coalition is more aggressive than what the company wants.

About 2 miles of the Housatonic have been scrubbed of the PCBs that seeped from the transformer plant, which operated for almost 50 years through the 1970s.

But some locals recoiled from that first phase, which replaced sloping river banks with a wall of gray rocks to prevent erosion of polluted soil, cut down mature leafy trees to make room for excavation equipment, and moved contaminated river sediment elsewhere in the county, prompting concerns the problem was simply moved somewhere else. Unlike the first phase, which largely went through an industrial area, the next cleanup will go through an undeveloped stretch, owned in large part by the state and conservation groups. State environmental agencies, Mass Audubon, and others worry an aggressive cleanup will do more harm than good. They advocate variations of a slower, less invasive cleanup and fear that the EPA might order a major dredging operation downriver.

GE’s monitored natural recovery would be the least invasive, essentially allowing the PCBs to be buried by river sediment over time — a solution other groups have rejected.

“That is just a term for doing nothing,’’ said Tim Gray, of the Housatonic River Imitative, the advocate who first questioned how the Clean-up Coalition was funded.

The webpage initially raised warning flags for him because the coalition’s stance appeared closely aligned with GE’s and there was no information about the group’s origins or members. But when he found out their claim of no affiliation with GE was untrue (after the weekly Berkshire Record broke the story), it became more disturbing.

“It smelled bad,’’ he said.

But 1Berkshire officials say they didn’t dissemble. They see the coalition as a separate entity from 1Berkshire, says Peter Lafayette, executive director of the Berkshire Bank Foundation who is in charge of the Facebook page and posted the comment saying there was no money coming from GE. “We didn’t use any money [for the webpage]. We did it all in-house,’’ at Berkshire Bank, he said.

Until the Smart Clean-up Coalition was launched, the 10-month-old 1Berkshire alliance had kept a reasonably low public profile as members worked to develop the foundation of the organization. Current volunteer chief executive Paul Haklisch and Daly said the decision to launch the Smart Clean-up Coalition was made by consensus among 1Berkshire’s main groups — the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Creative Economy Council, and Berkshire Visitors Bureau — and there was a sense of urgency to do it before final comments were due on the river cleanup in late January.

But three people associated with the alliance, two of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared professional harm if they spoke openly, said there was no real discussion about such a political and controversial stance before the webpage appeared. Eugenie Sills resigned Thursday from the board of Berkshire Creative Economy Council, one of 1Berkshire’s alliance members, over the issue.

“What once seemed like a good idea — a strategic alliance of the Berkshires’ economic development entities which would benefit all stakeholders — has turned into an embarrassment,’’ Sills, founder and publisher of The Women’s Times, said in a statement. The “lack of transparency and outright misrepresentation around the issue of the Housatonic River cleanup have led many to wonder whose agenda is really being served . . . the leadership of these organizations should be facilitating the process, rather than obscuring it.’’

As the approach to the next phase of the cleanup is decided, some say the controversy is the last thing the community needs, as it struggles to come up with a fair, balanced solution for scrubbing the beloved river clean.

“For Berkshire County there is such emotional and historic baggage associated with GE . . . the cleanup of the Housatonic River even considered in isolation of any of that is a tremendously complicated issue,’’ said Tad Ames of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. “From a political point of view to have GE being involved not just as the responsible party but somehow seen as wielding invisible influence is unfortunate and not at all constructive.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at