Metro

Yvonne Abraham

In Western Mass., GE’s name is mud

In 2005, a sign was posted near a bridge over the Housatonic River near the General Electric Plant in Pittsfield.
Stephen Rose/Globe Staff/File
In 2005, a sign was posted near a bridge over the Housatonic River near the General Electric Plant in Pittsfield.

This state laid down quite the red carpet for General Electric, which recently broke ground on its new Seaport headquarters, to great fanfare.

Of course, to some of us, it looked more like state and local officials lay down themselves, and let the company walk over them. Could any corporation be such a great catch that we’d give it $145 million in tax breaks and incentives to relocate here? Let alone a phenomenally successful company like GE, which has turned ducking its fair share of taxes into an art?

But if some in the eastern part of the state were troubled, many in the Berkshires were appalled. There, GE isn’t the benevolent titan that has graced our state with its presence. In Western Massachusetts, where environmentalists and five towns have been battling GE for years over its pollution of the Housatonic River, the company’s name is mud.

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For decades, a GE plant in Pittsfield befouled the Housatonic with toxic chemicals called PCBs, so harmful they were banned in 1979. Though GE has cleaned up the river closest to the plant,10 miles of the Housatonic and its banks remain contaminated. In 2015, after years of disputes, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order instructing GE on how to clean that part of the river.

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Environmentalists say the EPA plan leaves too many toxins behind. GE says it’s too onerous and expensive — especially the requirement that it dump the toxins far from the river. GE wants to save $150 million by dumping the PCBs at one of three sites nearby — sites the towns, the EPA, and environmentalists agree would harm pristine forest, endanger humans, and even send chemicals back into the river.

In its continuing attempts to convince everyone it knows best how to protect the river, GE downplays the damage it has done, even suggesting that PCBs aren’t dangerous.

Imagine what it feels like to folks fighting for the river when they tune into the festivities surrounding GE’s grand Boston debut.

“It makes me feel like [state] government isn’t doing its job,” said Matt Pawa, the attorney representing Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and Sheffield. “Here, we have a recalcitrant polluter that has befouled one of the most gorgeous parts of the state . . . and the state welcomes GE to Boston with open arms.”

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But GE has long bent government to its will. The company’s accountants and lobbyists work every imaginable angle to minimize its taxes, and maximize its government subsidies.

So of course, when President Trump (who proclaimed climate change a hoax) appointed friend-to-polluters Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, GE saw an opening. On May 22, Pruitt issued a directive that gives him or his deputy the final word on all cleanup plans over $50 million. Naturally, GE leaped at the chance to work something out on the cleanup.

“We reaffirmed our previous support to EPA for settlement negotiations . . . to explore the possibility of expediting a commonsense solution that meets our commitment to a comprehensive cleanup of the Housatonic,” GE spokesman Tim Conroy e-mailed.

Days before the Housatonic appeal hearing, the EPA said it would postpone it and reopen negotiations, as GE had requested. Pawa and activists concluded the fix was in. But, after strenuous objections by GE’s opponents, the EPA backed off, and on Thursday, the hearing went ahead, with EPA attorneys standing by their order.

But Pawa and others are worried Pruitt could yet intervene. “We don’t know what is going on behind the scenes between GE and the highest levels of the EPA,” he said.

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GE CEO Jeff Immelt took a firm stand against the Trump administration recently, lamenting its decision to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement. “Climate change is real,” Immelt tweeted. “Industry must now lead and not depend on government.” But GE isn’t leading on the environment in the Berkshires.

In Western Mass., there’s a phrase to describe Boston’s certainty that GE will be a good corporate citizen. It’s the same as GE’s motto: Imagination at work.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.