Cross-state canoe journey ends with call on GE to clean Housatonic

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BOSTON — Paddling a canoe across Massachusetts with a message for the state’s most prized new corporate arrival to clean up the Housatonic River, an environmentalist on Wednesday said he had seen improvements to the Bay State’s waterways over the past three decades.

Wearing a backwards camouflage cap and a life preserver on the Charles River Esplanade, Denny Alsop read talking points he had scrawled on his wooden paddle about the surprise he felt learning that General Electric was moving its headquarters to Boston while so much cleanup work remains undone around the company’s old manufacturing facilities in Pittsfield.

Speaking to supporters and reporters at the end of voyage that began March 21, Alsop said he learned earlier this year that GE was “backing away from the proposed cleanup” of the Housatonic at around the same time he learned the company was moving its headquarters from Fairfield, Conn. to Boston.

Alsop, a 69-year-old Stockbridge man who completed a similar canoe trip across Massachusetts in 1988, said the two GE news items surprised and “worried” him. After a press conference on the manicured banks of the Charles, near the Hatch Shell, Alsop visited the site of GE’s future headquarters where he read a letter to the company from the Berkshire Natural Resources Council urging the clean up of the Housatonic.

Speaking to the News Service afterwards, Alsop described the visit to the South Boston Seaport site as a “quiet finale.”

In early April when city and state officials gathered in an office tower to welcome GE to Massachusetts, the company’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, defended its cleanup efforts, saying no other company had done as much underwater dredging as GE.

“We have just completed a huge dredging project on the Hudson River. We’ve spent a half a billion dollars on the first project on the Housatonic. It’s our intention to work well with the governor and with the EPA and do another successful project on the Housatonic,” said Immelt, who allowed that company officials had their own opinions about how best to undertake cleanup work. He said, “We’ve done more dredging than any other company on earth I’d have to say.”

Tim Gray, director of the Housatonic River Initiative, said GE has had to perform so much clean-up work because it created so much pollution and didn’t dispute that the company leads the world in dredging.

“That’s probably true because they polluted more rivers in the world to dredge, so they got themselves into this,” Gray told reporters. Gray said the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, polluting the Housatonic were used as a lubricant in transformers built by GE and the hazardous chemical now follows the river to Long Island Sound where it harms fish. The chemical also wafts off the water along the way, according to the Lee resident.

“We breathe them in,” said Gray. He said, “I live 200 feet from the river, so when I’m sitting on my deck, I’m taking in PCBs.”

Gray said GE performed a “marvel of engineering” in cleaning up two miles of the river and said he hoped additional remediation would involve treating the contaminated dredged earth rather than merely dumping it near the river.

In a statement, General Electric said it is “committed to a substantial Housatonic Rest of River Remedial Action” and, “It is not a matter of if GE will undertake a cleanup, but a matter of how it will be done.”

GE was offered $120 million in spending programs from the state and $25 million in property tax relief from Boston as part of the enticement to lure the global manufacturing and technology company to the region. In February, Gov. Charlie Baker said GE’s disagreement with the Environmental Protection Agency over a federal remedy plan for its old site is a “separate issue” from the headquarters move.

Before portaging over land to the Charles River, Alsop covered some 250 miles along the Housatonic, Westfield, Connecticut, Chicopee, Quaboag, French, Blackstone, Quinsigamond, Assabet and Sudbury rivers, he said. Gray said he had greeted Alsop along the way, and said Alsop paddled through the snow, rain and freezing cold.

Alsop completed a similar journey in 1988, constructing a canoe out of a pine tree on a friend’s property in Tyringham for the trip, which he recently refurbished – patching a hole, cleaning off barn swallow droppings and adding a fresh coat of white paint – for his voyage that ended Wednesday.

The character of the rivers changed in those three decades from litter-strewn afterthoughts to gems, which are today filled with more boats and cleaner water, Alsop said.

“Rivers were places that people didn’t love. Everywhere I looked I saw chain-linked fences and no-trespassing signs and shopping carts thrown off bridges,” Alsop said of his earlier trip. He said of his recent trip, “The chain-link fencing is gone. The no-trespassing is gone. Steps leading down to the river, and real poetry – people setting up little chairs and fishing spots, and none of that was there before.”

Alsop said his earlier canoe trip was a “spear point” for the 1996 River Protection Act, which restricted development near waterways.

The signing of the river protection law included a stunt of higher visibility and shorter duration than Alsop’s month-long trip.

Right after signing the law, Gov. William Weld and the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Robert Durand, dove head-first and fully clothed into the Charles River, treading water before wading to shore.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service