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Clean water activist makes his case in a canoe

Denny Alsop received flowers from third graders from Muddy Brook Elementary school as he came ashore on the Charles River Esplanade after completing a one month canoe trip across the waters of the commonwealth in an effort to highlight needed cleanup of the Housatonic River. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

As Denny Alsop approached the Charles River Esplanade in a pine canoe Wednesday morning, he pulled his wooden paddle from the water and jotted some notes on the blade about his monthlong journey canoeing the rivers of Massachusetts to raise awareness about clean water.

Once he got to the shore, where clean water advocates had gathered to celebrate the end of his trip, the 69-year old Alsop cried out the name of a river more than 100 miles away.

“Heal the Housatonic,” Alsop yelled to cheers from supporters as he lifted the wooden paddle and a gallon jug of water into the air.


Alsop said he was inspired to paddle across the state because of pollution in the Housatonic River and objections by General Electric Co. to a federal plan that would force the company to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to remove toxic chemicals from the Berkshires waterway.

He said he was also motivated by GE’s decision to move its headquarters to Boston from Fairfield, Conn. His journey started March 21 on the banks of the Housatonic near the Connecticut border.

On the paddle that carried his scrawled notes, Alsop wondered whether the Housatonic would remain “poisoned” for generations to come.

“I’m talking about a real fear in the Berkshires,” Alsop said in an interview. “People who live in these communities along the river are deeply worried about the health of their children and their grandchildren.”

Alsop, a retired logger and forester from Stockbridge, made a similar expedition across the state’s rivers in 1988. This time, however, he carried with him a letter from the Berkshire Natural Resources Council to GE chief executive Jeff Immelt, imploring him to clean up the Housatonic.

After landing along the Charles, Alsop and his supporters carried his canoe through Boston to Wormwood Park, across from the South Boston site where GE plans to move its headquarters. There, Alsop said he read the letter aloud. It has also been mailed to Immelt, he said.


“It’s time for GE to start to think differently about how to approach these problems,” he said before walking to South Boston. “They need to join us and stop being against us.”

Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency released a plan that would require GE to spend an estimated $613 million to remove large amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic chemicals known as PCBs, that a company plant in Pittsfield dumped into the river from the 1930s to the 1970s.

PCBs, banned by the federal government in 1979, were once ubiquitous as coolants and insulating fluids.

In a statement, a GE spokesman said the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean the river, its former Pittsfield facility, and surrounding areas.

The company said it is committed to a cleanup that would “protect human health and the environment while minimizing impacts” on the river’s ecosystem.

“It is not a matter of if GE will undertake a cleanup, but a matter of how it will be done,” the statement said.

Alsop said he traveled 10 rivers, camping in a tent most nights, and portaging his canoe from one waterway to another. He said he spent about seven hours canoeing each day and chronicled his journey on Facebook.

“I come from love of my river,” Alsop said. “I’m not against anybody. I think we’re all part of the problem. We’re all part of the solution.”


David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.