From the Great Depression until the 1970s, General Electric Co. dumped massive amounts of toxic chemicals from its industrial plant in Pittsfield into the Housatonic River, contaminating miles of the waterway on its path through the Berkshires.
On Monday, the Boston company agreed to pay $63 million to five towns along the river as compensation and launch a massive project to remove polluted sediment, a landmark settlement in a case that resolves two decades of litigation.
The settlement, mediated by the Environmental Protection Agency, allows GE to dispose much of the contaminated sediment in a facility near the river, a concession the company had sought for years over fierce local opposition. The company declined to say how much removing the contamination will cost, but it is expected to exceed $600 million.
“This landmark agreement is a major milestone in our collective efforts to address PCB contamination in the Housatonic River, and we are looking forward to more comprehensive and faster cleanup activity in the river,” said Dennis Deziel, the EPA’s regional administrator in New England. “The cleanup will achieve the goal of protecting human health and the environment and ensures that the Housatonic River and its floodplain are restored and preserved as an asset to the community.”
The agreement ends a protracted dispute over the terms of the cleanup. In 2016, GE sharply opposed an EPA plan that would have forced the company to spend an estimated $613 million to remove large quantities of PCBs from the river. GE said it should be allowed to dispose of the toxic sludge near the river.
Negotiations have continued since then, with each side winning concessions in Monday’s compromise.
The company has already paid for a major cleanup of 2 miles of the river closest to the plant, part of a series of projects the company says has cost more than $500 million. But contaminated soil still stretches across more than 400 acres along 10.5 miles of the river and its floodplains between Pittsfield and Lenox.
PCBs, which were banned by the federal government in 1979, were once ubiquitous as coolants and insulating fluids.
Under the agreement, the most toxic sediment will be shipped to licensed hazardous waste landfills outside Massachusetts, in keeping with local requests. The agreement calls for GE to remove more contaminated sediment than the EPA had previously called for, reducing the amount of sediment that will remain in the river by one-third. Some less contaminated sediment will be stored in a new facility at a gravel pit in Lee.
The agreement also calls for the destruction of two dams on the Housatonic and the removal of sediment behind other dams on the river.
In a statement, Roger Martella, director of environmental issues at GE, said he hopes the agreement would bring "certainties to the parties.”
“This agreement makes good on our longstanding commitment to a comprehensive cleanup of the Housatonic . . . that fully protects the environment,” he said. "We look forward to working with our partners to implement this project without delay.”
GE declined to say how long the project would take.
Matthew Pawa, a Newton lawyer who represented Lee, Lenox, and other towns along the Housatonic, said the agreement was negotiated by EPA officials in Boston "without political interference” from administrators in Washington, D.C.
"The settlement is the product of a long and complex mediation in which the five towns made cleaning up the river as soon as possible their top priority and repeatedly stood their ground,” he said. “Cleanup of the PCBs will now begin much sooner and be much more extensive than anything previously proposed by US EPA.”
He added: "Time will tell whether GE makes good on its intentions.”
Environmental advocates have railed against the EPA’s previous order, as not going far enough to reduce the pollution. They have complained that it would have left a significant amount of PCBs in the river.
But many of them praised the new agreement.
"We feel that this agreement is our best opportunity to have a much more thorough remediation to protect the environment for wildlife,” said Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team.
The agreement provides for studies to determine the impact of the PCBs on wildlife, she said.
"Amphibians who use vernal pools for breeding appear to be especially sensitive to PCBs, so we feel it is important to remediate these unique habitats carefully,” she said.
Officials at Mass Audubon, which owns a 250-acre wildlife sanctuary along the Housatonic, called the agreement "the most protective option with regard to both human heath and the environment.”
"The Housatonic River is one of our most important natural resources . . . but right now it harbors toxic materials,” said Stephen Hutchinson, the group’s regional director. "This agreement to clean the river will allow us to reclaim it.”
Not everyone applauded the settlement.
State Senator Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, said he supported the agreement despite finding parts of it "regrettable.”
“Our laws, regulations, and precedent allow for less than a full cleanup, and as a result, the municipalities were threatened with endless litigation they could not afford," he said. "The alternative to negotiation was bleak.”
“It is an unfortunate and specific example of how our system enables those who pollute our natural ecosystem to get away with not paying the full price, or conducting a full cleanup, of the mess their company made,” he added.
Senator Elizabeth Warren praised the local communities for "holding GE accountable for at least part of the Housatonic River clean-up, and together we’ll keep fighting for better protections.”
The Housatonic runs nearly 150 miles from Western Massachusetts through Connecticut to Long Island Sound. Officials in Connecticut praised the agreement, saying it addressed their concerns about the downstream impacts of the pollution.
"After years of negotiation and mediation, this settlement continues to hold General Electric accountable for a prompt and effective cleanup,” said William Tong, the state’s attorney general. "We will continue to closely monitor all required work.”
In explaining why they approved the agreement, officials from Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield, and Stockbridge said in a joint statement that it was time to end two decades of legal skirmishing.
They felt the agreement that was negotiated, which also promised to eliminate the threat of future litigation, was the best they would get. They also worried that GE might prevail in its appeals, potentially allowing the company to dispose of even more contaminated material along the river.
"As a mother [and] a grandmother,” said Patricia Carlino, a member of Lee’s select board, "I want to be able to say I’m leaving the future generations of not only my own family but those families of our community with a cleaner, safer Housatonic River, and this settlement accomplishes that goal.”