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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Slouching Toward a Sane, Just Cleanup

The PCB Mess in Bloomington, Indiana

by Linda Greene, Bloomington Environmental Health Project

Westinghouse Corporation's long and dedicated effort to make south-central Indiana its very own toilet convinces me that the only fair way to deal with the firm's nasty waste matter is by hauling it to all the boardrooms, offices, homes and yards of Westinghouse corporate executives and their lawyers. I'd be happy to subsidize a truck or two.
   —James Alexander Thom, letter to the editor, Bloomington Herald-Times, Dec. 15, 1990

After about 30 years of manufacturing PCB-filled capacitors and processing defective ones at its Bloomington, Indiana, plant, Westinghouse Electric exited the Big 11 college town, population 74,000. It left behind eight Superfund sites. Westinghouse, however, hasn't finished with Bloomington-it plans to make the town the home of the world's first incinerator to burn municipal solid waste plus hazardous waste-contaminated soil and sewage sludge.

This breath-taking and original scheme for producing dioxin inspired chemist Paul Connett to remark, "The whole notion of using trash as a fuel to burn PCB-contaminated soil is utterly, utterly absurd. It is, quite frankly, the Monty Python of waste management" (speech in Bloomington, March 1990).

Dumping in Bloomington

In 1975 a Bloomington newspaper reporter discovered that since about 1958, Westinghouse had been routinely pouring PCBs into the Bloomington sewer system and dumping defective, PCB-filled capacitors into area garbage dumps and limestone quarries. The eight sites on the Superfund list consist of five garbage dumps, a sewage treatment plant, a salvage yard and the Westinghouse factory and grounds; four of them are on the National Priorities List (NPL).

Westinghouse...plans to make the town the home of the world's first incinerator to burn municipal solid waste plus hazardous waste-contaminated soil & sewage sludge.

Some Westinghouse workers with occupational exposure to PCBs are experiencing above-normal rates of brain cancer and malignant melanoma or have already died of those diseases. Many Westinghouse workers have PCB blood levels 100 times higher than those in the general US population; one worker has the highest blood level ever detected in a human being: 3,450 parts per billion.

Residents of a trailer park downstream from the Westinghouse plant claim to have health problems, among them miscarriages and birth defects, that are associated with exposure to dioxins, furans and dioxinlike PCB congeners. Impoverished people who scavenged PCB-filled capacitors from dumps so they could sell the metal and heat their houses by burning the oily PCBs also have health problems associated with exposure to dioxin and dioxinlike compounds, including PCBs.

For years people burned PCBs out in the open at the dumps, and for years the City of Bloomington gave home gardeners free "organic" sewage sludge from the City's Winston Thomas Sewage Treatment Plant, later named a Superfund site. No one kept records of who took the sludge or where they applied it.

Many Westinghouse workers have PCB blood levels 100 times higher than those in the general US population...

The official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) line is that Monroe and Owen County, Indiana, contain 650,000 cubic yards of contaminated material, yet in a public meeting (and on camera) several months back, an EPA engineer said he thought that just one NPL site itself, the Lemon Lane Landfill, contains over 650,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste.

A new Indiana University study, its findings currently undergoing peer review and not yet released to the public, has found "higher-than-expected" background levels of dioxin in the Bloomington area.

The Consent Decree

In December, 1984, five parties—Westinghouse and the city, county, state and federal governments (EPA)—announced that they had secretly signed a legal agreement, a consent decree, mandating use of a trash/PCB/sludge incinerator for the PCB cleanup, with the operating expenses paid by the taxpayers through "tipping fees" to Westinghouse for burning city trash along with the hazardous waste.

"PCBs will be around over geologic time."

Federal law requires that every Superfund site undergo a set of analyses, a "remedial investigation/feasibility study" (RI/FS), to assess the contamination and available cleanup methods before the choice of the best one (or ones) is made. By law, if a site doesn't receive an RI/FS, it can't undergo cleanup. The Bloomington sites, however, never underwent RI/FSs but received a cleanup plan nevertheless.

Though the consent decree and its incinerator were illegal without RI/FSs, the consent decree progressed to illegal votes by the Bloomington city and county councils. On August 22, 1985, a majority of the city council members voted illegally to accept the decree and incinerator, just minutes after local activists presented them with an anti-incinerator petition containing 8,000 signatures and while an overflow crowd chanted, in protest against the vote, an impassioned and deafening, "NO vote! NO vote!" All but one county council member voted for the consent decree.

Federal law requires EPA to have held public hearings on the cleanup plan before approving the consent decree. As local activists discovered two years later through the Freedom of Information Act, EPA held the first such hearing on December 5, 1984—one day after the agency signed the record of decision designating the incinerator as the official cleanup technology.

From the beginning the five consent-decree parties have been telling the public that the PCB-garbage incinerator was selected legally (that is, with RI/FSs and public hearings), was a "proven technology" (none like it has ever existed) and would offer the people and environment within 50-100 miles of the incinerator greater protection than would any of the alternatives to which no one has ever compared the incinerator.

In a court motion that it filed in an attempt to annul the consent decree, a Bloomington citizens' group put it this way:

The idea of garbage as fuel was opposed by citizens and environmentalists because it would make the already difficult task of incinerating PCBs in soil virtually impossible to perform without creating unacceptable risks from toxic by-products of incineration due to the wide variability in heat value of municipal waste and due to the additional toxic heavy metals and dioxin/furan precursors which garbage would introduce into the incinerator. The use of municipal waste as fuel, an idea which had never before been tried and had been rejected by EPA for a similar Superfund cleanup in Texas, served no purpose other than to allow Westinghouse to recoup its cleanup costs via tipping fees which the City and County had privately agreed to pay Westinghouse.

The consent decree does nothing for the Westinghouse workers who are ill or for the families of those who died, nor does it do anything for people working and living near other contaminated sites. It doesn't mention the people who are sick or dead from drinking contaminated well water or for the farmers who, along with their livestock, have suffered illness, birth defects and death from contact with PCB-contaminated streams. Since the consent decree makes no mention of the surface water and groundwater that Westinghouse polluted, it violates the Clean Water Act.

Had the EPA completed RI/FSs, the plan for Westinghouse to build a PCB/garbage/sludge incinerator in Bloomington almost surely would have died. Besides the fact that EPA Region 6 had rejected a similar plan in Texas, for years Bloomington activists have pressed hard for storing the hazardous waste in vaults of steel-reinforced concrete, as is being done now at the Vertac site in Jacksonville, Arkansas. No other cleanup method, however, would have been as lucrative for Westinghouse as the company's prototype "Monty Python" in Bloomington.

The Cleanup Today

On February 12, 1994, the five consent decree parties announced a new agreement: to evaluate alternatives to the incinerator (as would have been done automatically with RI/FSs). Bloomington's newspaper headlined the article, "Incinerator Off: PCB Cleanup Gets Fresh Start," and many readers seem to have stopped reading there. The story itself quoted a Westinghouse spokesperson as saying that the incinerator was "definitely on the back burner" and "probably the technology of last resort" or what a seasoned activist termed, "just the same old BS."

Despite Westinghouse's enthusiastic accounts of its "containment" efforts at the contaminated sites, a Bloomington environmental chemist calls them "token at best." The company is engaged in an energetic public relations campaign, complete with free bus tours of the Superfund sites, to convince the public that leaving the sites as is is the best option. The consent decree requires Westinghouse to monitor the sites for 30 years, yet as biologist Theo Colborn and colleagues have observed, "PCBs will be around over geologic time" ("Developmental Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Wildlife and Humans," Environmental Health Perspectives, October 1993).

...Westinghouse announced that it was turning a farm near Bloomington into a dump for the hazardous bottom ash from the incinerator.

To the EPA, also, public resistance to the incinerator has been no more than a pesky public relations problem: "The Lemon Lane Landfill and other sites in Bloomington, Indiana, present unique challenges for the community relations program. First, the settlement among the potentially responsible party, EPA, the State, County and City was reached without completing a formal [RI/FS]. Therefore, the standard development and screening of cleanup alternatives that occurs during the RI/FS did not occur as part of this settlement. Second, the public has questioned the safety of the chosen remedy, incineration fueled by municipal wastes. Last, Bloomington is a sophisticated university town with community leaders who are knowledgeable of the various technologies for hazardous waste cleanup. EPA believes an aggressive community relations program is necessary to address comunity concerns" (EPA Region 5, Expanded Role for Community Relations at the Bloomington Sites, Bloomington, Indiana, 1987).

This year marks the 20th anniversary of battling for a PCB cleanup in Bloomington. During this period, toxics activism in the area has swelled and dwindled repeatedly, but it has never died. Sustaining a toxics organization for 20 years is difficult anywhere, but trying to do so in a community with half its population college students is even harder. Although Indiana University students have brought energy and freshness to the movement, they've lacked endurance and the commitment to the local environment that comes with being a permanent resident of the community. Add to that a strongly individualistic, anarchist, clannish and sexist bent in many local environmentalist groups, past and current, plus local progressive groups' decades of silence on the PCB issue, plus the weak trade unionism in the rural, southern half of the conservative Hoosier state in comparison with the industrialized, northern half—and the obstacles to educating and activating the community can be daunting.

In 1990 Westinghouse announced that it was turning a farm near Bloomington into a dump for the hazardous bottom ash from the incinerator. Immediately the Coalition Against PCB Ash in Monroe County (COPA) formed to fight back. Composed mainly of wealthy landowners who became interested in the PCB problem only when they discovered that the ash dump would be down the road from their country estates, COPA has several officers who are prominent in the state-level Republican Party and has chosen private tactics (lawsuits and an EPA Technical Assistance Grant), rather than community organizing, as its main weapons. For a while, COPA was the only active toxics group in the area, but a small group of experienced experienced grassroots activists recently formed the Bloomington Environmental Health Project.

At the Second Citizens Conference on Dioxin in St. Louis in July, 1994 English activist Ralph Ryder observed that every toxics struggle is "a marathon, not a sprint." On the positive side, it's comforting that construction of the Bloomington incinerator hasn't begun; on the negative side, the cleanup hasn't begun, either. And EPA has never acknowledged the list citizens compiled years ago of properties suspected of containing contaminated sludge.

For years deadly chemicals have been leaving the contaminated sites, poisoning ever more soil, water and, ultimately, food. For those Bloomington activists who understand that eliminating the incinerator is an essential—but only preliminary—step toward a sane, just clean-up, the labor of transforming opposition to the incinerator into action toward a clean-up has barely begun.

Linda Greene is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, AFL-CIO and co-founder of the Bloomington Environmental Health Project. She welcomes inquiries and requests for information: 7487 N. John Young Rd., Unionville, IN 47468 (phone and fax 812-332-4961, messages 812-336-8036).

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