Wednesday, June 2, 2010
What's In Store For The Gulf: GE's Battle To Leave PCB's In The Hudson River
If the 80-Years War over cleaning up PCBs in the Hudson is any indication, that's how old you'll be when the entire clean up of the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe is finished. (If you want to use another environmental accident as yardstick, the 250,000 barrel Exxon Valdez spill has still not been completely ameliorated in the almost 21 years since it happened.)
Monsanto began manufacturing carcinogenic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in 1929. General Electric began using them almost immediately in the manufacturing of transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment at their Hudson Falls plant for more than 40 years as insulating material.
The discovery of PCBs toxicity and subsequent government action began in 1977 when the manufacture and use of PCBs was outlawed. The Hudson is still not cleaned up almost 35 years later.
Because they are long-lived, semi-volatile and don’t dissolve in water, PCBs can travel long distances (the 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River below G.E.’s factories is considered the biggest Superfund site in the United States).
The potential impact doesn’t stop at the tip of Manhattan. Because of their stability and ability to travel long distances, PCBs can migrate around the planet. PCBs are part of a global class of chemicals known to migrate from warmer regions to colder regions. Inuit people living in the Arctic thousands of miles from any industrial source are known to carry some of the highest body burdens of PCBs on the planet.
PCBs are also fat-soluble, which means that they concentrate as they move up the food chain. Animals at the top of the food chain – especially marine mammals like polar bears and dolphins – have dangerously high levels of the chemical, which they lack the ability to detoxify.
Humans, too, are contaminated. PCBs regularly top the list of chemicals found in human tissue surveys.
As early as the 1930s, problems caused by PCB exposures of workers were widely known by G.E. executives who met with colleagues from Monsanto and other companies to share information on the “systemic effects” of PCBs and other chlorinated hydrocarbons, including chloracne, a disfiguring skin condition.
Dredging finally began in earnest in May of 2009, almost 25 years after the first lawsuits against G.E. were brought.
According to The New York Times, "G.E. is supervising and paying for the cleanup, which federal officials have estimated could cost more than $750 million. Industry experts say the ultimate cost could be many times than that, however. (G.E. declines to give an estimate.)"
The Times also says, "...G.E has reserved the right, after a review of the operation in 2010, to reject the project’s much larger second phase. Federal environmental officials have said that if it did that, they would most likely order the cleanup to proceed and levy enormous penalties against the company."
Chances are that a good proportion of us reading this will be long dead before the Gulf is cleaned up and restored. The rest of us will be well into middle age. If they're lucky, our grandchildren will know the Gulf as it stood on April 18, 2010.
If they are very lucky.