Done In: the Betrayal of an American Town. General Electric polluted the village of Fort Edward, New York, and the Hudson River with the toxic chemical PCB then spent four decades battling regulators to avoid responsibility for cleaning it up. The company’s myopic behavior shaped the way environmental regulation is practiced today.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), known as Superfund, was created to deal with toxic waste sites that have been abandoned. It is widely believed the law has largely solved the major problems associated with industrial pollution. The assumption is not true.
The book is the pilot episode in “Watchdog – the series” (©Michael McLeod 2016), a slate of investigative documentaries that shine a spotlight on the nexus between business and government.
5 – Chemical Fish
It was no secret in Washington County, New York in 1970 that the two local General Electric plants used a lot of oil. So much oil that it was delivered in railroad tank cars making it impossible to miss. The county’s largest employers by far, both facilities made electrical capacitors, and the oil, known by the locals as Pyranol—the brand name GE attached to it—was an essential element in their manufacture, a messy process where workers were often up to their elbows in the stuff, or wading through it when the treat ovens overflowed which happened not infrequently. The result was contaminated oil that couldn’t be re-used; so much that plant workers were kept busy figuring ways to get rid of it. All the surrounding counties, even the state, sent trucks to the two plants on a regular basis to load up and spray the roads with it to suppress dust and kill weeds. The stuff worked great. No one had any idea it was dangerous.
A few scientists and health professionals scattered around the world were becoming concerned, but lacking an eye-popping disaster in the U.S. to focus its attention, the popular press hadn’t yet deemed toxic chemicals newsworthy. Things were about to change.
That same year, an article in Sports Illustrated magazine reported the presence of high levels of the chemical in Hudson River fish. The article, “Poison Roams Our Coastal Seas,” focused on a laboratory study funded by the magazine that tested for the presence of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides (DDT, dieldrin, BHC), mercury and PCBs, in the flesh and eggs of several of the most popular American saltwater sport fishes from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. The highest PCB residues were found in Hudson River striped bass.