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Pittsfield to start next chapter as final agreement reached on GE cleanup

Pittsfield to start next chapter as final agreement reached on GE cleanup

PCB contamination and an economy in tatters remained in wake of company's pullout
Pittsfield to start next chapter as final agreement reached on GE cleanup
Downtown Pittsfield is shown at dusk.
Photographer: Photo provided

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A generation after General Electric pulled out of Pittsfield, the company and federal regulators have finalized a deal to clean up the river contamination GE left behind and city officials see progress filling the hole GE’s departure left in the economy.

The Environmental Protection Agency, GE, two environmental groups and several nearby or downstream communities reached agreement in February to enhance cleanup of the Housatonic River, miles of which still contain polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs, a suspected carcinogen that GE legally dumped in the river for decades.

This follows more $500 million worth of cleanup work at the sprawling former GE campus in Pittsfield, on nearby properties, and in a limited stretch of the Housatonic, plus millions in economic development assistance.

This last piece of the cleanup, known as “Rest Of River,” was estimated at $613 million when announced in 2016, but neither GE or EPA is affixing a price tag to the revised version agreed upon last month.

GE ran electrical transformer, plastics and ordnance operations in Pittsfield for nearly a century, employing 12,000 people there at its peak. The company shrank its presence later in the 20th century and finally pulled out in the early 1990s, during the tenure of CEO Jack Welch.

Like so many company towns whose big employer left town, Pittsfield was left reeling by GE’s departure, with resulting decreases in income and increases in blight, recalled Mayor Linda Tyer.

“GE is a major part of Pittsfield’s history. It left a legacy when they did leave, and quite a lot of distress,” she said.

The legacy was not just the wounded pride of families who had multiple generations of GE workers, such as her own, but toxic chemicals in the ground and water.

INDUSTRIAL HISTORY

GE’s Pittsfield plant dates back to pioneering electrical engineer William Stanley, who developed other inventors’ prototypes into the first practical alternating current electrical transformer. 

As the story goes, Stanley went to work for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh but didn’t care for the company culture. As he was in fragile health, the rampant pollution of late-1800s Pittsburgh also was a problem. He moved to the mountain town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where in 1886 he built the first successful AC transmission system as a demonstration project.

A few years later and 20 miles north, he founded the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company in Pittsfield. General Electric acquired the company in 1903. 

GE’s Pittsfield Works carried on and expanded upon his work with transformers. And as any student of electrical technology knows, for the longest time transformers were made with PCBs because PCBs don’t catch fire and are excellent insulators. 

Unfortunately, they also are toxic, accumulate in living creatures and do not biodegrade in the environment.

HUDSON SIMILARITIES

Some of the details are different, but the Housatonic River cleanup is similar in some ways to the Hudson River cleanup GE had to undertake after decades if legally dumping PCBs into the Hudson River at its Fort Edward and Hudson Falls capacitor plants. 

After years of legal wrangling and public relations campaigns, GE was ordered to undertake a massive dredging and restoration project of the Hudson that eventually cost more than $1.5 billion.

The Housatonic is a smaller river, but reaching a deal on its cleanup has dragged out for decades as well.

In 2000, GE and EPA agreed on cleanup of the epicenter of the contamination, the sprawling campus on Route 9 just east of downtown Pittsfield, along the East Branch of the Housatonic River.

As part of the deal, the Pittsfield Economic Development Agency was created. GE seeded PEDA with $10 million for economic development and gave it the 52-acre site where its transformer plant sat. 

PEDA built the William Stanley Business Park on the site. The park now has three occupants, a solar farm, MountainOne Financial Partners and the Berkshire Innovation Center, a collaborative workspace.

Under the final agreement announced in February, GE will remove the most heavily contaminated material from the state but landfill the rest in nearby towns, a decision that proved unpopular with some residents of those towns during a series of public informational meetings.

The EPA said most of the work to be done is in a 30-mile stretch of the Housatonic north of the Connecticut border. PCB contamination in the Connecticut portion of the river is judged much less severe. 

Along with removing contaminated material, GE will pay $8 million to Pittsfield and a combined $55 million to the towns of Lee, Lennox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield.

GE also will donate one parking lot to Pittsfield and strip fencing and pavement from other parking lots; enhance the appearance of remaining GE plant area buildings; and donate property near Rising Pond to Great Barrington.

Additionally GE committed to continued research toward PCB treatment technology, and agreed to collaborate with EPA where appropriate.

EPA hopes to finalize a revised permit later this year.

BUILDING BACK UP

After a down period, Pittsfield is making progress in its effort to rebuild and reinvent itself, Tyer said. “It’s taken about 10 years for the demolition and remediation to be completed.”

There were a lot of very hard feelings toward GE in the wake of its pullout, she recalls.

Despite that, a not-insignificant portion of the community wanted the city to pursue another dominant employer to be the backbone of its economy as GE had been, Tyer said. 

The mayor said there’s a generational split — whose who worked at GE and others in their age cohort think Pittsfield needs another giant like General Electric. Younger residents, especially the millenials who have little firsthand memory of General Electric and no nostalgia for the Pittsfield of that era, think the city needs a blend of small, medium and large employers.

“They’re looking forward to the future,” Tyer said.

Her own preference is for a diversified economy. She said Pittsfield moved in this direction about 15 years ago, crafting an image as the urban center of the Berkshires and incorporating tourism, cultural attractions and outdoor beauty into its development and marketing efforts.

There are other post-industrial cities in western Massachusetts, including Adams and North Adams, and many more over the mountains in the Connecticut River Valley, such as Holyoke, Easthampton and Chicopee. They’ve had varying levels of success with various strategies to revitalize themselves.

North Adams, 20 miles north of Pittsfield, has a direct parallel to Pittsfield: The closure of the Sprague Electric factory there in 1985 knocked out the city’s economy and left behind PCB contamination.

Sprague’s imposing old brick factory complex became the MASS MoCA art museum, and gave a new economic boost to North Adams. 

Pittsfield has seen some vacant churches converted into housing, and instituted some zoning changes that brought a residential presence downtown, but it has no real opportunity for industrial chic redevelopment of the MASS MoCA variety, Tyer said. 

Nor is there a single blueprint the city can adapt to its own redevelopment, she said. “Each community has its unique personality.”

Statistics for the city of Pittsfield in the wake of GE’s shrinkage and pullout are not favorable. Its population (estimated at 42,533 in 2018) has been down in every census since 1970, when 57,020 residents were counted.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 3.2 percent in December, a bit above the 3.1 percent in all of Berkshire County and 2.8 percent for Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But median household income ($48,555 in 2018) was well below the Berkshire County median ($56,674) and far below the Massachusetts median ($77,378). 

Tyer said the money provided and cleanup performed by GE will help the city turn the page to its next chapter. “There is this very interesting momentum in the city right now,” she said.

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