Clare Lahey has lived with her husband in the home he grew up in, just up the street from the Housatonic River in the town of Lee, Massachusetts, for nearly five decades. Now, in the twilight of their lives, they’re watching as the same chemicals that have ravaged the health of people living along the river for years are now being dredged and dumped near their home.
Lahey has had bladder cancer twice, 15 years apart; her husband is wracked with illnesses including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease even though he never smoked. She believes that proximity to the river is to blame for their health problems, and she’s not alone: The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, warns that the river’s polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are likely to cause cancer in humans, and a Massachusetts Department of Public Health study on the cancer link is scheduled to be released this year.
“Why don’t we just move away?” Lahey asked. “Well, because he’s 85 and I’m 82, and we want to finish out our lives here.”
Lee is a working-class town in the heart of the Berkshires, a rural region near the New York border known for its scenic beauty. It’s also known, among locals, as a place polluted by PCBs, dangerous industrial chemicals manufactured by Monsanto and used by General Electric in the electric transformers the company manufactured and serviced. GE ran a plant in the county’s largest city, Pittsfield, and dumped PCBs into the local Housatonic River from 1932 to 1977, when Monsanto ceased production. In 1979, the EPA made PCBs illegal.
After decades of efforts by local and state leaders and federal agencies like the EPA, GE in 2000 began cleaning the river and nearby areas. But the latest round of dredging, expected to begin in the next few years, would put a dump site in Lee. Residents of the town as well as local leaders — including the Housatonic Environmental Action League and the Housatonic River Initiative, who are challenging the plan in the First Circuit Court of Appeals — are resisting the decision.
The town has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto as part of an attempt to find an alternative site outside of the region.
The lawsuit is asking for compensatory and natural resource damages and for a court order “that will require Monsanto to deposit funds awarded by a jury into an escrow account so that Lee has the funds to move the 2,000,000 tons of PCB soil and mud projected to be dumped in Lee to an out of state location.” Lee Select Board chair Bob Jones told The Intercept that the town doesn’t have a specific site in mind, “although there are certainly licensed sites in existence.”
“We’re hoping if we can show that Monsanto produced these toxic items, cancer-causing PCBs, that if we can come up with enough money to have that, we can then leverage GE taking the stuff out of the area and not having a waste dump in the town of Lee,” Jones said. “That’s really what we’re looking for.”
Bayer, the pharmaceutical giant that bought Monsanto in 2018, rejects the lawsuit completely. The company’s director of U.S. external communications, Nicole Hayes, told The Intercept in an emailed comment that Bayer believes the lawsuit “is meritless.”
“There is no legal basis for imposing liability on Monsanto for the lawful sale of PCBs into the stream of commerce more than four decades ago, over which Monsanto had no control,” Hayes said. “Furthermore, Monsanto ceased its lawful production of PCBs more than 45 years ago and never disposed of PCBs in or near the Town.” The lawsuit does not accuse Monsanto of dumping PCBs, only of manufacturing them, and makes clear that GE was the offending party for the chemical disposal.
Despite Monsanto’s claims, a memo published by the Poison Papers project in 2017 shows that the company was aware of the problems posed by PCBs at least as early as 1969, eight years before it stopped producing the chemicals. The memo shows that Monsanto knew that PCBs could have detrimental effects on people’s health and that the evidence for its persistence in the environment was “beyond questioning.” A series of potential solutions was offered, including immediate cessation of PCB production; the company, apparently, chose the “do nothing” option.
Lee isn’t the first municipality to take Monsanto to court over its production of PCBs that other companies later dumped. Similar efforts in Washington state, California, Missouri, and elsewhere have had varied levels of success: Some cases have been settled, some have resulted in the company being ordered to pay restitution, and others have been found in Monsanto’s favor.
“I feel like we have a good chance of winning because this is so clearly unjust,” Lahey said.
In 2016, the EPA made an agreement with GE and other nearby towns that GE would dredge the river and remove the contaminated soil out of the county. No sooner was the agreement made, Jones said, than GE went to court to change the parameters. That led to a mediated agreement, done in private with representatives from the affected towns — Lee, Pittsfield, Lenox, Great Barrington, and Sheffield — the EPA, GE, and environmental groups including the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, or BEAT, that resulted in the dump site being placed in Lee.
Jones and Lahey are among the Berkshire residents in and outside of Lee who feel that what they see as the secrecy of the process — former Select Board member Patricia Carlino was the town’s representative — did a disservice to the people of the town.
“To mediate, negotiate, and seal a deal without any knowledge or input from the general public is a failure of representative government,” Jones told The Intercept.
The agreement was signed by the Select Board after 18 months of closed-door sessions and without consulting the rest of the town, something that still angers anti-dump residents. Under the agreement with GE and the EPA, Lee will get $25 million from GE in exchange for the dump site. If the town rejects the site, the funding is off the table.
“A PCB dump was imposed on a town of only about 5,500 people, plus or minus, without their knowledge,” Jones said.
Jane Winn, BEAT executive director, agrees that Monsanto should be held responsible for its role in producing PCBs. She remembers a time when the river and surrounding wetlands were in far worse shape than they are today, due to the chemical’s corrosive damage. The river used to change color and catch fire, she said.
Despite Winn’s support for the lawsuit, she doesn’t think it’s likely to succeed. Winn, as BEAT executive director, was a signatory to the consent decree putting the dump in Lee. She told The Intercept that while she’d like to see a more permanent remedial solution, “the site they’ve chosen, if it has to be in the Berkshires, is a reasonable site.”
Winn said that the dump in Lee is a “downside” to the cleanup but that the trade-off of having low-level contaminant soil put in the town site is the compromise in order to get to that point. She understands that Lee feels it’s been treated unfairly but urged perspective: “They’re getting more sediment out of the river in Lee because of it.”
There’s some outright local opposition to Lee’s lawsuit. The Berkshire Eagle, in an opinion piece taking issue with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s written support for the Lee effort, questioned what the next move would be if the dump were stopped and endorsed the site as an imperfect but ultimately necessary solution to the river’s pollution.
“While the dump disproportionately affects Lee (and Lenox Dale), the fate of a comprehensive Housatonic cleanup plan matters to a much broader part of the Berkshire community,” the paper’s editorial board wrote in the unsigned opinion piece. “Whatever the intensity of the understandable hard feelings in Lee, it’s reasonable to ask what the procedural limits of reflexive opposition are here.”
It’s not lost on Jones that the site is in the poorest town of the towns involved in the discussions. “It’s a working-class town,” Jones said. “It was a mill town, but the mills are gone.”
“We’re the ones who have to bear the burden of it,” he added.