Before becoming homeowners, my wife and I rented half a house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts by the Rte 7 bridge. The property was right on the river, one of the few residences in Town with real access to the Housatonic. It was cool and inviting down there by the ledges and there was a nice patch of sunny lawn near the water, but I wouldn't have called it particularly private. However one memorable day, much to my surprise, I walked over to the top of the bank and observed a young woman, unknown to me or to my landlord, sedately reading Cosmo down there like she owned the place, with neither a stitch of clothing on nor any regard for modesty. Possibly it was not a woman at all but a vagrant selkie having just hauled out on the grass and shed her skin. She did leave her magazine and a water bottle behind after she decided to move on, though, which certainly made my landlord think less charitably of her trespassing than otherwise.
I certainly can't explain her appearance but I think exhibitionism probably wasn't the motivating factor. All those cars passing by on Rte. 7 or stopped at the light on the bridge are too intent on the road, or their cell phone conversations, to pay any attention to what is going on down by the water. The river is largely invisible to motorists and there are not many pedestrians who cross the bridge. I suppose our uninvited sunbather may have been one of the few who did look over the rusted railing and noticed the deep green of the grass and the smooth gray of the rocks and thought it looked enticing and worth spending some time there on her tan.
One thing I am more certain about is that the thought of skinny dipping in the Housatonic was not one of her considerations. The attraction is aesthetic, but that stops at the waterline. Just about everyone knows that Housatonic water has PCBs. In the four years I lived by the river I never so much as dipped a hand into the current.
Reclaiming the river might seem a mad dream, but if so there are an increasing number of lunatics in the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills who are willing to take on the challenge. The Great Barrington River Walk has reintroduced many residents to the forgotten beauty of the river without having to resort to trespass. There are numerous watershed and river advocacy groups all along the Housatonic who together have held GE's feet to the fire and demanded accountability. For some it has become their life's work. For others it has forged a regional connection that extends from Pittsfield Massachusetts far down the river in Connecticut.
The force of this citizen and non-profit activity can be be seen in the public comments recorded on the EPA's official Housatonic clean up website. A recent example is a case in point. GE is required by EPA to propose interim media protection goals (IMPGs) for the rest of the river. The corporation released a 404 page report in September that provoked a massive outcry from a wide group of stakeholders. GE proposed a weaker performance standard than the EPA's, with ranges of PCB levels for species in the watershed that far exceeded the parts per million (ppm) allowed by the USDA for safe human consumption of fish and game - let alone for swimming.
The public response was resounding. A directory of public comments can be found at this link and there are others not on this list but also posted by EPA. EPA did the right thing and sharply rejected GE's proposal, requiring a more conservative standard for the rest of river protection goals. EPA's response noted numerous deficiencies in GE's proposal and does not pull many punches. To quote from page 3 of the summary response document; "(T)he specification of such wide ranges of concentrations (of PCB ppm), many of which are not protective, becomes, from a practical perspective, meaningless, uninformative, and needlessly complicates the application of the IMPGs to the screening of remedial alternatives."
I commend EPA and its Rest of River Project Manager Susan Svirsky for holding to this high standard. There were comments from state and federal agencies that certainly reinforced this decision, but there were so many public comments - from concerned citizens, conservation non-profits, watershed associations, area businesses, and municipalities - that this latest attempt by GE to limit its liability and minimize its obligations could not pass unnoticed.
There are many heroes working for the Housatonic. There are former GE employees who are willing to be whistle blowers. There are courageous neighborhoods demanding that their children's health be safeguarded at home and at school where PCB disposal puts them at risk. There are dedicated volunteers on numerous boards and organizations who attend every meeting, call the media when attention must be paid, and work for the day when the river will no longer be overlooked or suspect but instead the lifeblood of riverside communities. There is so much still to do, but more and more of us love that dirty water. We hope to be able to sing of the Housatonic what Pete Seeger sings of the Hudson, another river with PCBs from GE: "the river may be dirty now, but she's getting cleaner every day."