General Electric and PCBs
If you’ve seen or heard about GE’s video on PCBs and the Housatonic River, be sure to read our rebuttal.
- What are PCBs? A brief and painless chemistry lesson, including why these molecules are called PCBs and why there are different versions of PCBs.
- Some background on the issue. What’s all the fuss about GE and PCBs?
- How did GE pollute Berkshire County with their PCBs? GE dumped PCBs into the Housatonic River, buried barrels of PCB-laden waste throughout the floodplain, allowed PCBs to drain directly into the river, gave away PCB-laden fill as clean fill, and created a toxic waste dump next to an elementary school.
- Did GE know about the dangers of PCBs? Yes. As early as 1937.
- Just how dangerous are PCBs? According to a study commissioned by EPA, scientific literature presents overwhelming evidence that PCBs cause cancer in animals. An industry-sponsored peer-reviewed rat study characterized as the ‘gold standard study’ by one peer reviewer, demonstrated that every commercial PCB mixture tested caused cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared PCBs to be probably carcinogenic to humans. The National Toxicology Program has stated that it is reasonable to conclude that PCBs are carcinogenic in humans. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has determined that PCBs are a potential occupational carcinogen. Other agencies agreeing are the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. Non-cancer effects of PCBs, include immune effects, reproductive effects, neurologic effects, and endocrine effects. It is impossible to reconcile this overwhelming evidence with GE’s claim that PCBs are harmless.
- Did GE really build a toxic waste dump next to an elementary school? – The U.S. Federal Courts ordered GE to remove its PCBs from at least part of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield and to outline a plan for removal of PCBs from the rest of the river. So when you dredge PCBs from the river, where do you put those toxic chemicals? If you’re GE, you put them next to an elementary school. Both the toxic waste dump and the elementary school are still there. There’s no plan to move either.
- Really? Next to an elementary school?! Do the area pediatricians think this is safe? All 11 pediatricians in the city of Pittsfield signed a petition that they sent to the mayor, saying, in effect, please don’t let this happen. “…every child has the right to attend an environmentally safe school. We believe that as long as hazardous waste dumping continues at Hill 78, Building 71, and other adjacent areas near this school, it will be difficult to assure this right. We therefore urge the community to speak out to community leaders and politicians to stop the dumping and cap these sites.” But business interests carried the day.
- How about taking the filters from the school’s air filters and testing them? Maybe that will tell us whether or not there’s a real threat to the children. Environmental groups suggested that plan. The state agreed to give it a try. But then, the filters that were to be tested disappeared.
- Silver Lake – And it’s not just the river. GE has also contaminated nearby Silver Lake. This lake empties into the Housatonic River above most of the “clean up” meaning it is re-contaminating the river. Now GE has put a cap over the contamination, put a public walkway and some benches around the periphery, and declared it clean, even though new PCBs are continuing to flow into the lake.
- Unkamet Brook has also been contaminated by GE, and the cleanup of this brook is only just now underway. Like Silver Lake, Unkamet brook enters the Housatonic River upstream of the already completed 2-mile cleanup.
- Does GE have a plan for cleaning up its mess? Yes. Basically it involves removing a very small amount of the contaminant; putting sand over the rest; declaring the river, floodplain, and Silver Lake to be “cleaned”; and walking away from their responsibility.
- How GE, in its defense of PCBs, uses the same strategies and tactics as the tobacco industry.
- Newell Street Parking Lot and Barrel Fields This former GE parking lot won’t be cleaned up. The PCBs will remain, and so will the risks to wildlife and public health.
- Dorothy Amos Park Across town, and on a different branch of the Housatonic River, GE is ordered to clean a city park and the nearby river of its PCBs. You have to wonder if there is anything in Pittsfield that GE hasn’t contaminated.
- Rose Superfund Site – A site in Lanesborough – just outside of Pittsfield. From EPA document: “The property was used for the disposal of waste oils and solvents from General Electric Company (GE) as early as the 1950s and possibly later. The one and one-half acre disposal area occupies the northern section of what was at the time an approximate 12.5 acre residential lot.” The site was “remediated” in 1994, but is still pumping toxic water from the ground.
- Pittsfield Economic Development Authority – The William Stanley Business Park is built on former GE property. GE knocked down buildings and then turned the site over to the City of Pittsfield with a clean bill of health. What a gift. The agency created to accept and manage the property is called the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, or PEDA. So what happens when tests reveal that a body of water on the property is sending PCBs into the nearby and recently capped Silver Lake? Does the city go back to GE and say “You said it was clean. You deal with it.” No. They instead decide to fight EPA and argue that sending more PCBs into Pittsfield’s water is acceptable. BEAT met with PEDA and explained that the city didn’t need to bear the regulatory burden. They could give it back to GE. We were told that PEDA would rather fight EPA’s lawyers than fight GE’s lawyers. How’s that for protecting the citizens of Pittsfield.
- NPDES permit – The Environmental Protection Agency’s program for regulating the discharge of pollutants into our water is called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or NPDES. If you want to send a pipe or culvert into a body of water, you have to first clear it with EPA … unless your GE, and the city is Pittsfield. Their NPDES permit for discharging into Silver Lake expired in 1997. Just imagine trying to drive your car with a license that expired 18 years ago! It’s 2015 and the city of Pittsfield is still fighting with EPA in the hopes that it will be allowed to send pollutants into Pittsfield’s water.
- Citizens Coordinating Council – A process to hold public meetings to keep the citizenry informed about the “cleanup” of PCBs
“Rest of River” Update – March 2016
Message from the US Environmental Protection Agency about the upcoming legal process regarding the remediation of the Housatonic “Rest of the River”:
Per your request, a factual timeline and description of the steps taken in an appeal to the EPA Environmental Appeals Board (the “EAB”), based on the regulatory requirements, is below. In addition, three overall points:
(1) As we have mentioned at CCC meetings, EPA cannot provide legal advice to the CCC or its members. The description below is general, based on publicly available information and is not meant to provide legal guidance. We strongly encourage you to consult legal counsel of your own if you have legal questions about the EAB process.
(2) The EAB website has a lot of information about the EAB. www.epa.gov/eab/ In particular, the EAB website includes a set of Frequently Asked Questions, an EAB Practice Manual (Click Guidance Documents button for the practice manual), and A Citizen’s Guide to the Environmental Appeals Board. Attached are pdf’s of the EAB Practice Manual and the EAB Citizens Guide.
(3) The precise details of the EPA EAB requirements are at 40 CFR Part 124. You should review those provisions and rely on the specific provisions rather than this summary. See http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title40/40cfr124_main_02.tpl for those regulations.
A general description of an EAB timeline is as follows:
- After EPA issues its Final Permit Modification, that decision will become effective 30 days after EPA serves notice of the decision unless EPA specifies a later effective date in the decision, or review is requested on the permit under 40 CFR § 124.19.
- An appeal from the Final Permit Modification is commenced by filing a petition for review with the clerk of the EAB within 30 days after EPA serves notice of the decision. A petition is filed when it is received by the Clerk of the EAB.
- Section 124.19(a)(4) describes the contents of a petition.
- EPA must file a response to the petition, with supporting information as described in
- 124.19, within 30 days after the filing of the petition.
- A petitioner may file a reply within 15 days after service of the EPA response.
- Content and Form of Briefs – §124.19(d) describes the content and form requirements, including content, attachments and length.
- Participation by Amicus Curiae: Any interested person may file an amicus brief in any appeal pending before the EAB. The deadline for filing the amicus brief is 15 days after the filing of the response briefs. Amicus briefs need to comply with all procedural requirements of § 124.19.
- Filing of Motions by parties is covered in § 124.19(f).
- Oral Argument – The EAB may hold oral argument. To request oral argument, a party must include in its substantive brief a statement explaining why oral argument should be permitted.
- Final Disposition of an EAB Action, and Judicial Review – see §124.19(l). A petition to the EAB is a prerequisite to seeking judicial review. Also, for purposes of judicial review, § 124.19(l)(2) provides details on the different scenarios for issuance of a final permit decision.
- The overall length of time for an EAB appeal varies on a large number of factors, as one can see from the different considerations in § 124.19. That being the case, it is difficult to estimate a timeframe for an EAB action. Roughly a year and a half ago, a review of the EAB website of over two dozen EAB permit appeals over several years indicated that the average length of time for the EAB to make its decision was between 8 and 9 months. That does not include the time spent by EPA after an EAB remand, and was a small sample size. That being the case, the estimate should not be used as anything definitive.
At this time, we cannot commit to an estimate of when EPA will issue its Final Permit Modification and Response to Comments. However, based in current information, we believe it will not be before May 1, 2016.