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OpEd: Earth Day: Choices we make will decide the future of our environment in Berkshire County
April 20, 2011

Published in the Advocate Weekly's Earth Day Special Section

There are many factors with the capacity to impact the environmental health and quality of life in Berkshire County.

From personal choices and actions taken each day by individuals to efforts made by organizations to preserve and protect open space, our environment -- and its future -- is shaped by a host of decisions made, consciously and unconsciously, each and every day.

Not all decisions, with their resulting outcomes and impacts, are equal. At present, two pending matters before state and federal regulatory agencies will have enormous impacts on the environment of our region for years to come.

Currently, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities is considering the proposed merger of Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Western Mass Electric Co., and Boston-based NStar. How and why would a utility merger have a large impact on the environment of the Berkshires? Most simply, because utility companies deliver, transmit and purchase energy for their customers, while also running energy efficiency programs. Future decisions made by this proposed merged utility could either help accelerate or hinder our necessary transition from reliance on fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

Recently, thanks to Massachusetts’ landmark Green Communities Act of 2008, WMECO invested in large-scale solar projects, providing energy without the negative environmental impacts of coal, oil or other nonrenewable fuels. The question is, will this new utility, if approved, continue with these investments and generally be supportive of clean energy? DPU recently adopted a revised standard of review for this merger, seeking to answer just that question, by requiring that the merger show "net benefit" and not simply "no harm."

DPU’s revised standard is a step in the right direction for the environment of the Berkshires. A final decision on the proposed merger will be made this calendar year; my hope is that if approved, requirements are put in place to ensure a "net benefit" not for the shareholders of the company, but for the consumers and our regional environmental assets.

While DPU considers the proposed utility merger, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is determining what will be required of General Electric in the next phase of the Housatonic River cleanup. General Electric suggests several sets of options for the stretch of the river from southern Pittsfield to Lee, ranging from doing nothing -- a monitored natural recovery --to a full-scale dredge of the river and its banks.

In contrast, state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan and Environmental Protection Commissioner Ken Kimmel, in consultation with other state environmental agencies, proposed targeted dredging of several "hotspots" along the river where polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) levels remain above levels posing a risk to human health. In other areas, they propose requiring General Electric to monitor the situation and only dredge or excavate if PCB levels exceed the same thresholds.

I have met with EPA officials, state environmental officials, local environmentalists, activists and other residents of the region on this issue, and I believe all interested parties agree on the following:

* When PCB levels threaten human health, they must be removed once and for all.

* No dumps or PCB storage sites in Berkshire County should be authorized as a result of this next phase of work.

* Additional mandates on General Electric should be based on science.

* An open and public process for citizens, of all opinions, to voice their concerns and thoughts about the cleanup must be available.

When it comes to the levels of passion ignited by issues, there are no more polar opposites than a utility merger and the cleanup of a wonderful river polluted by corporate negligence and greed. However, both issues, and the judgments made around them by state and federal officials, will have large and long-standing impacts on the environment of western Massachusetts.

While decisions might be made in Boston or Washington, D.C., they can and should be influenced by residents of the region on which they will have the greatest impact. As such, I ask the readers to follow these issues, research them and ask questions of your elected and appointed government officials. Only when citizens engage on these issues will the best outcome for our region and environment be reached.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) represents the 48 western Massachusetts communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin District. He serves as the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. This is his third term in the Massachusetts Senate.


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