AstroTurf In the Berkshires: Pro-GE Facebook Page Launched in Wake of $300K Donation
STOCKBRIDGE – When 1Berkshire, a consortium of four countywide development agencies, was formed last April, it described itself in lofty language – “a strategic alliance,” “a single point of service” – offering seamless access to Berkshire resources for business development.
From the start it was an odd coupling: Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Economic Development Corp., Berkshire Visitors Bureau, and Berkshire Creative Economy Council. Plus, it needed a lot of money to fulfill a mission yet to be defined: it solicited $1 million from businesses, banks, and other organizations.
The marriage of these agencies occurred in April. It doesn’t have a Web site; its record of achievements obscure. 1Berkshire is still on honeymoon. Or is it? In a FaceBook campaign, 1Berkshire, it seems, has found a calling, promoting a “coalition” it created named “Smart River Cleanup.”
Smart River Cleanup urges the Environmental Protection Agency to avoid any dredging of carcinogenic PCBs from the Housatonic River as the federal agency deliberates on what method of environmental remediation to order the General Electric Company to undertake.
Instead, 1Berkshire demands a “low-impact, middle of the road approach” that preserves “existing ecological and recreational resources of the river.”
At issue is the contamination present in river sediment and flood plain south of Pittsfield, especially where dams caused highly contaminated sediment to accumulate, like Woods Pond in Lenoxdale and Rising Pond in Housatonic.
For 40 years, General Electric dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into the river from its Pittsfield manufacturing facility. By EPA order, fish and wildlife from the river cannot be eaten, nor is the river recommended for swimming due to the contamination.
The lower the impact of the cleanup, the less expensive for GE the cleanup will be. The savings could be considerable, in the many millions of dollars.
GE and 1Berkshire: Bankrolling the Message?
What 1Berkshire didn’t mention was that it has received a $300,000 pledge from GE, and according to a Berkshire Creative official, GE has hinted at millions more, even though General Electric no longer has business operations in the Berkshires.
Norman Rockwell Museum Executive Director Laurie Norton Moffatt, a founder of 1Berkshire, defends the Smart Cleanup Coalition’s lobbying effort.
“I am personally opposed to any dredging,” she said. “We need to take the middle ground. All we are asking for is more time and more information so that we can have a beautiful environment, a clean environment, an untrammeled environment upon which our tourism depends and is essential. We need to find an alternative to dredging. We destroyed the river once. We don’t need to do it twice. Science will reveal a better solution.”
In a Feb. 3 Facebook response to Housatonic River Initiative founder and environmental activist Tim Gray, the Smart Cleanup Coalition denied that it has received GE funds. But on Feb. 17, in a Facebook note, the Coalition came clean about the financial relationship between GE and 1Berkshire, but denied that the funds were used to fund the Smart Cleanup campaign.
“Part of 1Berkshire’s mission is to advocate on issues that could affect the economic well-being of the Berkshire economy,” read the note. “1Berkshire felt that extensive dredging of the Housatonic River could have a profound negative impact on the County’s economy and established the Smart Cleanup Coalition to voice its concerns.”
The revelation of GE funding and the advocacy of Smart Cleanup by 1Berkshire, taken apparently without a vote of all of its partners, has riled some of the leaders.
“There was no board approval of this position on the river,” fumed one Berkshire Creative official. “I wonder -many of us wonder – who is calling the shots. There is definitely a concern about lack of transparency. We are getting sucked into a political agenda where we don’t belong.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb 18 edition of the Berkshire Record.
David Scribner, Editor of the Berkshire Record, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.