Two Towns and a River
Two Towns and a River is an investigative account of how an early attempt by government to uphold environmental laws in New York State helped set the new dynamic with industry in motion and how that dynamic shaped public attitudes toward government. The book fits in the genre of narrative nonfiction, but I think of it more as a traveler’s tale, about the real-world consequences when a company treats regulatory matters that effect the public’s health and well-being as nothing more than a cost of doing business.
The widespread belief that government regulations are to blame for what ails the country did not occur by accident. It was part of a many faceted, intergenerational plan, set in motion nearly half a century ago by the captains of American industry. The plan, to which they committed enormous resources, was dogged in its simplicity: to reduce the size and scope of the federal government by casting it in the public eye as inept, wasteful and soulless.
A driving force behind industry’s push to change the political landscape was the enactment of federal environmental regulations in the early 1970s. Created in response to overwhelming public demand, no one had any idea how the new laws would work. As it turned out, not so well. They gave the entire American business community a common enemy: the federal government. Companies soon began using the environmental mechanisms created to make America a better, safer place, as a whipping boy to turn the public against government writ large. As the years passed the business community’s crusade became the driving mantra for conservative America. The campaign reached its apogee in the election of Donald Trump.
Two small neighboring communities with a pollution problem were caught in a unique confluence of circumstances. What happened there is important historically, for the problems they encountered had their genesis in the early days of what I call the “Dawn of Toxic Awareness.” “Environmental regulation” was being figured out on the fly. Science was still old-school. Chemicals, the source of the problem, were not well understood; in particular, PCBs, the chemical that was receiving the most attention. Early in the book, a landmark study reveals that PCBs, “a group of products…related to DDT and equally poisonous,” had found their way into every corner of the globe and in the fatty tissue of every human being. According to the study, the chemical was apparently everywhere. But how this transmission occurred was unknown.
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. Waste oil was put into drums and disposed of in local landfills and municipal dumps. “Gypsy haulers” dumped barrels of it in pits hidden from public view. 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 about this substance, but lacking an eye-popping disaster in the U.S. to grab public attention, the popular press hadn’t yet deemed hazardous 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–known scientifically as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)–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.
A website data base providing information pinpointing areas in the country plagued by severe air pollution where the amount of poison in the air is not monitored. The site will be hosted by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. The data base is an adjunct to a theme emphasized in the book: Public health everywhere in the United States is severely impacted by hazardous substances in our air and our water. But the true extent of these problems has been effectively concealed by government and business working in lockstep to impede the monitoring, research and public disclosure of both the extent of industrial pollution and its effect on public health. Their reasoning is simple and intuitive: give people health information that affects them directly and they are likely to ask questions, which creates problems for both polluters and regulators. Ipso facto, the less the public knows, the better. We look forward to the data base becoming a helpful tool for people around the country who are concerned about the health of their family and community, .