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Once supportive of EPA's Housatonic cleanup plan, Sen. Warren now calls key part of it 'an insult'

In this file photo from July 16, 2018, Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters after a New England Council breakfast.
Katie Lannan
State House News Service
In this file photo from July 16, 2018, Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters after a New England Council breakfast.

Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she's "wrangling" with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the next phase of cleaning up the Housatonic River in Berkshire County.

General Electric polluted the river with PCBs decades ago when it operated a factory in Pittsfield.

The cleanup plan — agreed to by local communities, the company and the EPA in 2020 — calls for some lower-level toxic waste to be disposed of at a dump near the river. The EPA and GE have argued the disposal site will be built with multiple safety measures.

But groups of nearby residents and activists have fought the deal through the EPA appeals process and also in federal court.

Speaking to NEPM's The Fabulous 413, Warren said the proposal isn't acceptable to her.

"My job here is to keep my foot on the back of the EPA. And I want them to clean up the river, and I do not want them to store this waste near the Housatonic or any place else in that area," Warren said. "I'm wrangling with the EPA over this right now. I'm glad that folks in the locality are raising it. But this just isn't right."

Warren also said it has taken "way, way, way too long" for the cleanup to take place.

"And I think it is an insult now to turn around and say, not only have there been delays in getting it cleaning it up, but we want to do off-site, right there close, of storage and processing of these dangerous chemicals," she said. "My answer is no."

Warren's comments were similar to those she made in 2018, urging the EPA to send toxic waste from the Housatonic to an out-of-state site. She communicated those concerns to the EPA in a letter also signed by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Richard Neal.

But only last year, Warren, Markey and Neal were included in an EPA press release endorsing the final permit for the cleanup plan, which includes the controversial dump in Lee.

"Today's decision by the EPA will support the recovery of past wrongs that have impacted the communities along the Housatonic River for over 70 years. It is the result of the hard work of community leaders and will ensure the Housatonic River can be enjoyed for generations to come," the Democratic members of Congress said in the March 2022 press release. "We will continue working with our federal, state and local partners to hold GE accountable for meeting all of its obligations and seek the environmental justice our communities deserve."

Asked to explain Warren's comments Thursday opposing the dump in light of her previous support for the EPA's plan, a spokesperson denied there was a change of heart.

"For years, Senator Warren has pushed for the EPA to hold GE accountable for the clean-up of the Housatonic River and her comments reflected the community’s frustrations about that process, not any new position," the spokesperson wrote. "The Senator continues to work with local, state, and federal partners to achieve the environmental justice our communities deserve."

Warren's office declined any further comment, including when asked how the senator has communicated her displeasure with the proposed dump to the EPA.

The executive director of one of the groups still suing to stop the disposal site, Tim Gray of the Housatonic River Initiative, said they have not gotten help from any of their politicians — including Warren and Markey.

"Yeah, it sounds like [Warren's] opposed now, but it's too late for her to oppose it because they're already up there building — starting to build it already," Gray said Friday. "It's a terrible time for her to even get into this, as far as I'm concerned. And it's disingenuous, because she's trying to make it look, you know, like she's been on top of this all along — and she hasn't."

Gray, a Lee resident, said he and others in town opposed to the dump have reached out to Warren's staff repeatedly in the last few years.

"They always say they'll get back to me," he said, "and I have not heard them get back to me."

Nancy Eve Cohen and Sam Hudzik contributed to this report.

Updated: February 24, 2023 at 2:25 PM EST
Updated to include comments from Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative.
Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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