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Pittsfield Environmentalist Barbara Cianfarini Posthumously Receives EPA Award

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office announced this week awards for people who have worked to protect the environment. Three received lifetime achievement awards, including the late Barbara Cianfarini, who for decades fought to clean up PCBs in the Berkshires.

Cianfarini, who lived in Pittsfield, died in November 2019. She was 64.

In the middle of a highly contentious virtual public hearing this week — where people were railing against the EPA and its proposal to dispose PCBs in Lee, Massachusetts — moderator Bob Cianciarullo paused to announce the award. He said it is the regional EPA’s highest honor for citizens.

"We appreciate all of Barbara's advocacy over the years," he said. "And, you know, obviously, she would have been a strong voice as part of this process."

Charles Cianfarini, Barbara’s husband, was on the phone waiting to speak at the hearing when the award was announced. 

"Thank you. Thank you for the kind words," Cianfarini said. "You make it difficult for me to now say what I got to say."

What Cianfarini said was that the EPA’s proposed cleanup would not remove enough PCBs, and that it should make human health the priority.

Those were also the sentiments of his late wife, Barbara, who first learned about the health effects of PCBs in 1998 when they were discovered on her mother-in-law's property in Pittsfield, recalled Charles Cianfarini.

"We got a call from my mother, saying that there was two nice men from General Electric who came, and said that they wanted to do some testing of her yard," Cianfarini said.

GE was testing for PCBs. At that time, dozens of homeowners in Pittsfield learned the soil around their homes was contaminated with the chemical compound once used at the GE plant.

Barbara Cianfarini began researching the health risks of the toxin.

In a 2014 interview with New England Public Radio, she said the stench of PCBs in Pittsfield stuck with her.

“It’s a very heavy, dank, oily smell. I jokingly referred to it as Pittsfield’s bad breath,” she said.

Barbara and Charles Cianfarini founded the group Citizens for PCB Removal. But Charles said his late wife’s environmental advocacy wasn’t always welcome in Pittsfield.

"I think it was very important that you had someone like Barbara to speak out," he said, "even though there was always backlash from the business community, from the realtors, who didn’t want to admit that there could be a problem. 'Oh, we can’t talk about this contamination. We can't talk about cleanup, because that just makes it all look bad, and maybe somebody's house might not sell because of it.'"

He said Barbara, who once worked as a legal secretary for GE Plastics, was always respectful, even toward the people she pushed to clean things up.

"She always felt that the EPA and the people that we dealt with were on our side of the fight," he said. "They wanted a good, successful cleanup."

The Housatonic River in Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
The Housatonic River in Massachusetts.

Barbara Cianfarini’s fight helped get the agreement, signed by GE about 20 years ago, to clean up the river, starting with the first stretch downstream of its Pittsfield plant.

Years later, in that 2014 interview, she pointed out that after the PCBs were dug up there, plants and animals returned.

"Mother nature has taken over and camouflaged it very well," she said, pointing toward the riverbank. "So we’re very pleased with the results."

In honoring Barbara Cianfarini, the EPA said she prodded the government for two decades, and in recent years, her focus was on the remaining segment of the Housatonic River — an effort the agency called “steady, scientific and strong.”

Now, her river advocate colleagues aren’t giving up. 

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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