Imagine, if you will, a sunny day. A boy and his father are fishing on the beautiful waters of the Hudson River. Excitedly, the boy yells, "I got a fish! I got a fish!" He reels it in and his father removes the hook from its mouth. Dad says, "That sure is nice one, son." He then tosses the fish back in the water. When the boy asks why, the father explains that the fish in these waters are dangerous to eat. They contain high levels of Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Since the middle part of this decade, the GE Company used PCBs to pack and insulate their electrical components. During this manufacturing process they managed to dump millions of tons of dangerous chemicals into the Hudson River. Now the EPA has ordered GE to help clean up the mess they created. The legal battle has been ferocious. The media campaign launched by GE has been even more ferocious. Still the two sides battle it out in our courts. The two sides rage on, and the battle is as of yet, undecided. GE claims that it has done nothing illegal. The EPA and members of the public claim differently. For now, the verdict is still out.
History of the Problem
This issue has a long history, which is important in understanding the issues involved and the positions of both sides. In 1865 a material resembling PCBs was discovered. In 1929 the Monsanto Company began making PCBs. In 1936 the first study indicating that major health and safety problems were associated with PCBs was released. From the 1940s through the 1970s GE used PCBs to pack their products and released tons of the dangerous chemicals into U.S. rivers in various locations.1 During this time they either ignored or attempted to discredit studies linking the dangerous chemicals to health problems. In 1974, the U.S. EPA established a safety level of 5 parts per million (ppm) in fish intended for human consumption.
Contaminated fish exceeding safety levels were discovered in the Hudson River.2
In 1977 Monsanto stopped production of PCBs. In the same year, the EPA passed the Clean Water Act, making it illegal to discharge PCBs into navigable waters. In 1984, the U.S. EPA revised its PCB threshold to 2 ppm as a result of new risk data. In 1997, the EPA discovered that the problem was not only contained to the waters, but had spread to tree swallows and could be found in excessive levels in their body and eggs. Levels up to 55 ppm were found. This meant that the birds qualified to be classified as hazardous waste. That same year, an eagle was found to have 71 ppm in its body fat. Governor Pataki joined forces with the U.S. government and formed the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustee Council. This was the first step in determining of if a Natural Resources Damages claim could be filed.3
Although the legal battle has been going on for many years. The most significant events occurred in the 1970s. In 1976, GE attorney Jack Welch negotiated a settlement, which limited GEs liability in the clean up efforts to $3 million dollars.3 In the 1980s the Hudson River was established as one of the biggest Superfund sites in the United States. In December of 2000, the EPA announced a 5-year plan to clean up the Hudson River by dredging the most highly contaminated areas. It would involve removing 2.65 million cubic tons of PCB contaminated sludge at the bottom of the river. The EPA proposed that GE be responsible for $460 million dollars of the bill for the clean up.4
Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Healing the Hudson River. 2002. Retrieved at http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/hhudson.asp Accessed August 2002.
A more detailed listing of the historical events surrounding this issue can be found at http://www.clearwater.org/news/timeline.html.
Historical information was obtained from Clearwater.org. Fact Sheet 8: Hudson River PCB Pollution Timeline. News and Bulletins. 1997. Retrieved at http://www.clearwater.org/news/timeline.html Accessed August 2002.
CleanupGE.org. Toxics on the Hudson: The story of GE, PCBs and the Hudson River. Retrieved at http://www.cleanupge.org/pcbarticle.html Accessed August 2002.
There are several complex issues surrounding the clean up which have divided the two sides. GE claims that scientific evidence that PCBs are dangerous is not credible and that it cannot be solidly proven that they are responsible for the health problems associated with them. The EPA disagrees and compares GEs argument to that of the tobacco industry, which claimed that tests had not definitively proven that tobacco smoking was dangerous to human health.5
The second issue is that of dredging the river. Some say that the river must be dredged and the contamination removed as quickly as possible to prevent further harm. GE officials say that dredging the river would cause more problems than it would solve. They claim that they have already spent $200 million dollars on groundwater pumps and treatment facilities to reduce the flow of PCBs from the bedrock below the river. GE claims that PCB levels in fish have come down 90% since 1977.6 The Company originally claimed that the levels came down from being broken down by microorganisms. However, U.S. government agencies have proven that microorganisms cannot break down PCBs. GE now claims that the PCBs were made inaccessible be the natural buildup of river sediment.7 GE claims that the natural processes of the river will eventually clean up itself and that dredging would only serve to stir up the sediments and put them back into the water.
Wildlife scientists claim that the fish are still too contaminated and that the levels have not come down significantly as GE claims. Wildlife scientists have found PCBs of 300 ppm in Footnotes
CleanupGE.org, soils 50 feet from the shoreline in a floodplain. River Otters and Minks from nearby rivers and streams. Levels as high as 3,091 ppm have been found in turtles. Wildlife scientists estimate that it will take 25 years before levels come down. 8
GE claims that the river is cleaning itself. Ann Ryschlanski, public affairs specialist with the EPA says "From those mouths to God's ears, I wish it was true, but it's not. PCBs don't break down. They change from one kind of PCB to another, and they're all a problem. So the river is not "cleansing itself" of them."9 PCBs are fat-soluble and are not eliminated by the body. They are stored in the body fat of the animal and as a result, become concentrated as they move up the food chain.
Problems associated with PCBs were discovered in the 1930s when it was discovered that workers developed a condition called chloracne, a disfiguring skin condition. GE executives knew about it and met with executives from Monsanto to discuss the issue and share information. Some of the workers were in "very bad condition."10 GE failed to make the knowledge public and avoided the issue.
My Science is Better than Your Science
One of GEs strategies has been to challenge the studies, which claim that PCBs are dangerous. Jack Welch, attorney for GE wrote, "There is no credible evidence that PCBs cause cancer."11 The key to their argument is a study conducted o employees at its workers at its Fort Edward and Hudson Falls plants, which reports that workers there have not suffered from excessive rates of cancer.
CleanupGE.org, 10 CleanupGE.org,
Occupational Health Officials at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry claim that this study cannot be considered conclusive as it contained a high number of employees, such as secretaries and office workers, who had little or no exposure to PCBs. In addition, they failed to account for the fact that cancer does not appear immediately, but can appear many years after the last exposure. GE officials offer the rebuttal that cancers that appear too far in the future could be a result of other causes and cannot be linked directly to PCBs.12
The GE study is the only study conducted that did not find a statistically high level of cancer in persons exposed to PCBs. GE claims that not only is there no evidence that PCBs do not cause cancer, but there is no evidence that any other chemical causes it either. Animal studies have been conclusive in determining that exposure to certain chemicals, including PCBs results in abnormally high levels of cancer. GE argues that animal studies cannot be used to make policies concerning human beings. Although they argue that PCBs are not harmful to humans, GE still proceeded to launch a multi-billion dollar media campaign to support their position.13 This is very similar to the strategies taken by the tobacco and asbestos industries in similar cases.
Did GE Do Anything Legally Wrong?
In the United States one cannot be convicted for a harmful act if they did not know the hazards. A person cannot be convicted for laws that were not in effect at the time of the occurrence. Clean Water and Air Acts did not become law…