GE, PCBs, and the Hudson River

After the Second World War the United States experienced a huge economic expansion as technology developed exponentially – providing faster and more efficient means of production – and yet still remained uninhibited by governments and environmental activists as the cry of the United States rang out the banner of capitalism and the free-market system. This was a time that facilitated many great environmental catastrophes, before the EPA was established in 1970, one of which greatly affected the Northeast: the Hudson River contamination with PCBs.

PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls are a highly stable compound that won’t easily decompose or conduct electricity. That’s why they made perfect insulators for electrical circuits in transformers, capacitors, and coolants, which was how they were used at the facilities in Hudson Valley and Fort Edward along the Hudson river. PCBs can also be used for several other things including plastic softeners for water bottles, adhesives, and hydraulic fluids. Production of PCBs was dominated by the Monsanto Company since 1929, and GE remained one of their largest customers until the 1970s. It seems that Monsanto Company has a hand in every sort of nefarious environmental issue, the pinnacle uninhibited capitalism.

The effects PCBs have on health in humans have very serious consequences and were well-known by producing companies since the 1930s, however they seemed to feel compelled to share their findings with the public or let it stop them from pouring these chemicals into our ecosystem. In fact they worked hard to prevent knowledge of these effects from spreading, and ever reaching the desks of our congressmen despite huge outbreaks of PCB poisoning many years before the federal ban was enacted. The earliest reported cases of PCB poisoning occurred in 1922. In Japan, 1968 – ten years before the chemical was banned in the US – over 14,000 people were mass-poisoned because of PCB contaminated chicken feed. They still remained legal because the effects were played down and at the time everything took a backseat to the capitalist ideology and free-market growth.

PCBs are a carcinogenic compound with highly mutagenic effects. Adults exposed to the chemical will experience rashes, internal bleeding, and ocular lesions. Exposure to PCBs can cause developmental problems, especially in girls, as the PCB molecule can inhibit and imitate production of estradiol commonly leading to further development problems, irregular menstrual cycles, and breast cancer. Children exposed to PCBs, or fetuses in the womb also suffer poor cognitive development. Also PCBs can be passed through life forms all the way up the food chain exposing each to the contamination and its resulting symptoms, and of course an early death.

GE released as much as 1.3 million lbs. of PCB waste into the Hudson River over the course of thirty years starting in1947 and concluding after a federal ban was placed on the chemical in 1977. A year previous, in 1976, the NYSDEC banned all fishing in the upper-Hudson River due to high levels of PCB contamination in fish and other aquatic life forms. Fishing companies were forced out of business and many people lost their jobs or were forced to relocate.

It was established as a Superfund site, the nation’s largest to date, which under Superfund law deems GE the responsible party for the disaster and thus for its cleanup as well. Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 which also stipulates that if the EPA cannot find the responsible party they have the authority to form a commission and pay for the cleanup through their budget of $8.5 billion.

GE is to blame for the contamination without a doubt, but to their credit at least the company assumed responsibility and is actively participating in its cleanup project. Root of the problem is the impotence of the EPA coupled with the economic and political savvy and self-servitude of GE. Since the area was established as a Superfund site in September of 1984 the EPA made few advances toward the cleanup as GE actively fought the Superfund law in court, lobbied congress in their favor, and spread misinformation about the contaminated site through the media. They even managed to convince a number of people that the dredging project would stir up the PCBs and make the problem worse.

GE is targeted and the EPA is to a lesser extent for its ineffectiveness in mandating the cleanup. The EPA, NRDC, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc were all active participants in the policy evolution. The first agreement was reached in 2002, in which the EPA asserted that 40 miles of the riverbed needed to be dredged by and GE agreed to cover the financial cost of the project. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act all the documents of correspondence between the EPA and GE are available to the public. However, in 2005 they revised their agreement in secret and won’t release the documents surrounding the event, despite pressure from the NRDC to do so. The modified agreement says that six miles of the contaminated site needed to be dredged to declare the site “cleaned”. The stipulations put the cost of the project at about $500 million dollars, $400 million of which are expected to fall to the taxpayer.

One unique and scientifically fascinating characteristic of this disaster is the surprisingly rapid genetic mutation in the Atlantic tomcod, a bottom-feeder and common species to the Hudson River. Just after GE stopped the dumping these creatures were living for a maximum of six months before the poisons eventually killed them. However, there remained enough of them living long enough to reproduce themselves and pass their evolutionary traits down through generations. Evolutionarily those fish most adaptable were the ones to survive the longest and reproduce the most, triggering a genetic mutation in under fifty years. The mutation occurred specifically in the proteins of the AHR2 receptor that allowed them not to bind as easily to the PCB molecule. They could then accumulate enormous amounts of the chemical in their bodies without dying, and would get more resistant to the chemical with each generation. This is a bitter-sweet development, because it demonstrates the strength and persistence of life, yet with more contaminated fish becoming more and more contaminated these chemicals spread faster throughout the ecosystem. The fact that the tomcod is the primary food source of the striped bass doesn’t help the spread, because the striped bass is consumed by many land mammals and birds of prey in the area. Before the site was contaminated much of the fishing industries built themselves on the abundance of the tasty striped bass, so the fish was good for people too. But now we must work to avoid these fish and any other animals that might have eaten them.

The ending looks bleak for this particular environmental issue, not because the problem is failed to be addressed, but because it is in the best interests of the two primary actors – the EPA and GE – to drag out the logistical planning until nobody remembers the issue anymore and then clean up a fraction of the site for a fraction of the price at the expense of American people: financially and physically. What a proud democracy we are. This issue will disappear into the “completed” file of the EPA but it’s legacy will live on in the form of mutated fish and over 90% of the nation’s largest Superfund site will remain contaminated for years to come.

Photograph of the Hudson River looking north from the Bear Mountain Bridge, taken by en:User:Rolf Müller on May 29, 2005.

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