MAYOR’s CONSENT DECREE REOPENER REQUEST GOES BEFORE THE COUNCIL TONIGHT … COUNCIL SHOULD APPROVE THIS MOVE … MEASURE WOULD HELP REMEDIATION AT SILVER LAKE … IN PRACTICAL TERMS, IS THAT THE BEST PITTSFIELD CAN HOPE FOR, OR IS ANOTHER FORM OF RE-OPENER IN ORDER? WHY NOT GO AFTER HILL 78?
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY, SEPT. 17, 2013) — At tonight’s city council meeting, our Right Honorable Good Friends shall hear about amendments to the GE Consent Agreement (GECA) being proposed by Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi.
THE PLANET supports this initiative, which would transfer property around Silver Lake owed by GE and privately into city control. Another change the mayor wants would grant the city easements and rights of way on land owned by GE and PEDA. Under the terms of the Consent Agreement, the mayor must obtain approval from the council to make the amendments. Silver Lake, 26 acres of water 30 feet deep and once a recreational gem for the city, became under GE’s foul presence a dumping ground for some of the most noxious of industrial pollutants. The changes the mayor seeks would help with the remediation of the lake.
As THE PLANET understands the move, the property transfers ownership of some land around the lake to the city. The easements pertain to land owned by GE and PEDA. Under the agreement, GE is paying for restoration of the land around the lake, which would include a public walking path. The easements will allow the city to provide maintenance and upkeep of the recreational trail once it is installed. The scenic walkway would only be done after GE completes the remedial actions in the lake itself.
That action will consist of installing a 14-inch-thick sub-aqueous cap over the lake bottom. The cap is a combination of sand, stone, and geotextile materials developed specifically for that application. In addition, the polluted sediments from the lakeshore are being scooped off and removed. You can see that work in the process of progress if you drive around Silver Lake Boulevard.
Many questions have been raised about the cap. How will the cap prevent chemical leakage from underneath it? What will prevent polluted water from underneath from draining into the Housatonic River? We can ponder these as long as we like, but of course, the ultimate question is how could the city of Pittsfield let GE off the hook on the remediation not only of Silver Lake but the entire 52 acres of the former GE campus?
That takes us back to the days, weeks, and months in the late 1990s when the city of Pittsfield — essentially Mayor Gerry Doyle and the city attorney — sat down across the table from the best legal minds of GE. To this day, the transcripts and/or minutes to those sessions have never been released or made public. Why? Does it contain evidence of legalized highway robbery? Would it be an embarrassment to the players involved?
Needless to day, the negotiations were a mismatch. GE got off with a cleanup that provided remediation of mere cents on the dollar. The agreement left in place most of the PCBs and other pollutants. The company was required to remove pollutants to only a certain depth, certainly not at or below foundation level. It gave the city a measly $10 million ($1 million for $10 years). Today, with the PEDA property still empty after all these years, it’s apparent that companies and businesses who otherwise might have an interest in the site are reluctant to build there because of what lies underneath the foundations and the potential liabilities they face. Who faces the bills for that? What business would want to build there knowing it might be on the hook for an EPA-style clean-up?
In addition, consider that the problem with the pollutants wasn’t confined to the 52-acre GE complex. The company for years gave away contaminated fill, especially after WWII, when there was a construction boom for residential and suburban neighborhoods. GE, according to the old timers who worked there, also used many parcels of land as dumping sites. The city has never received, or if it has it has never made public, a manifest listing all of these hot locations. Why not? Why was that not one of the conditions of the consent agreement? Can the city obtain such an inventory? If so, how? Who pays for it?
During Campaign 2011, THE PLANET raised the question to many of the candidates: Would you support re-opening the Consent Agreement to get GE to pay more of a financial penalty for leaving so much pollution behind in the city of Pittsfield? Most pols gave vague and non-commital answers. Councilor-at-large Melissa Mazzeo, alone, jumped on the issue, promising action to push a reopener of the GECA. With most of the term done, Mazzeo has yet to act in any kind of substantial way. Was she playing politics two years ago?
When we asked her about that earlier in the year, on Feb. 22, Mazzeo answered this way:
Last year, February to be exact, I had a meeting with a gentlemen [sic] in the community with extensive knowledge of the PCB problems in Pittsfield. At the meeting we both agreed that taking on the Consent Decree was a Huge undertaking for anyone person or even a group of people with out some political clout or MONEY. We did however agree that if we could get someone with Clout to shine a light on our problem it may help us to start the process of cracking open the Decree. We wanted to focus on the PCB clean -up of Sliver Lake and thought of contacting the Harvard School of Public Health. We felt that if we could get them to come here and study our contamination of this lake that maybe this would give us the leverage we needed to re-adress the other concerns..Hill 78, etc. I Sent an email to them.
She sent an e-mail and left it at that. Here is a copy of that e-mail, sent to Harvard:
I am a City Councilor in Pittsfield MA, a city of about 41,000. I would like to speak with someone from HSPH about the possiblity of doing a study on PCB’s in Pittsfield MA. GE has polluted our city and was made to clean-up “hot spots”..I and many in our city wonder what are, if any, potention [sic] problems we can have by PCB’s being left in the soil? I think this would be a great oppurtunity [sic] for research and study for your Dept. I can give more details if someone wants to contact me… my email is listed above or I can be reached by phone at 413-443-4079. I thank you for your consideration.
Mazzeo had this to say to THE PLANET about the reply she received from Harvard:
Basically, she sent some e-mails and did little follow up. She said she made “a start” on the question and pledged to “reach out to Harvard again and try to make contact.” Has that happened? Also, who is the “gentleman with extensive knowledge about the PCB problem in Pittsfield?” Why Harvard? She didn’t say.
On a more practical level, Mazzeo raises two fair points. First, she’s but one official. One official will not be able to do much. Second, she is correct. There is a prevailing view that it would be futile to try to reopen the GECA.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, the City of Pittsfield had its best and biggest opportunity to receive a fair settlement from GE back in the late 90s, when they were sitting down at the negotiating table for that precise purpose.
The city of Pittsfield blew it big time. It let the company pretty much off the hook. Silver Lake was left dirty. Hill 78 was left to remain next to Allendale grammar school. The deeper subsoils underneath the foundations on the 52 acre GE property were left untouched. Virtually all of the remainder of the polluted hot spots in and around the city were left unremediated. In exchange for all that, the city got $10 million in yearly installments, payments that ran out five years ago. Pittsfield had its big chance. It whiffed completely.
Can the GECA be reopened? Absolutely, as Mayor Bianchi’s request to the city council illustrates. In fact, the agreement has been opened a number of times previously, each time to deal with some routine procedural matter of the kind that Bianchi’s proposal addresses. Theoretically,the GECA can be reopened for any purpose at any time. The mechanisms of re-opening exist in the agreement itself.
However, it’s one thing to ask for a re-opener to facilitate the existing and agreed-upon processes of remediation, which the mayor is doing. It is something else entirely to request a re-opener to put GE’s terms of liability on the table again. That would only happen with a near-unanimous consent of the mayor, the city council, the school committee, our state legislators, federal representatives, and important players in the business community — a critical mass of those in power acting on behalf of a victimized people to force a well-equipped company back to the negotiating table again.
Short of that, again speaking pragmatically, perhaps its best to accept the remediation as is, push for the best and cleanest recreational area around Silver Lake, and bring the lake back into its once-former role of in-city aqueous gem.
THE PLANET, though, would advise at minimum pushing for the removal of Hill 78. Removal of this multi-storied mountain of toxicity a stone’s length from a grammar school would be a far easier sell. The objective o the re-opener can be phrased in pin-point precision, with Hill 78 being a well-defined geographical entity.
If the political and business community could unite on this one objective, we think it could be done.
Pushing for the removal of Hill 78 is a dynamite issue for any candidate looking to score big points at the polls this year. In other words, it’s ripe for politicking. We only hope that anyone who brings this measure up and advocated for the same will be a snarling wildcat upon obtaining power, one who won’t go away, and one who will be willing to do the hard work needed to build some sort of consensus or coalition of activists with the power to force change.
CANDIDATES: THE PLANET ASKS YOU — IS ANYONE OUT THERE EQUAL TO THE TASK?
And you, dear readers, let us know what you think about this important issue.
“In a hard intellectual light / I will kill all delight, / And I will build a citadel / Too beautiful to tell.” — Richard Eberhart, first staza, “In a Hard Intellectual Light,” (1936).
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.