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Northeast Dispatch
After 40 Years, Will GE Get a Pass for Polluting the Housatonic River?
Under the Trump administration, the decades-long battle to get the company to clean up its PCB mess looks more uncertain than ever.

Housatonic River, Pittsfield, Massachusetts

JDW Foto/iStock

The Housatonic River is a favorite of New England fly-fishers, kayakers, and hikers. Flowing through the rolling hills of Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the river makes an idyllic backdrop to the region’s famous fall foliage. It meanders under covered bridges and through Connecticut, eventually emptying into the Long Island Sound.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that behind the scenes of that serene, beautiful natural world is a severely polluted system,” says Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

The “WARNING” signs dotting the river’s banks in Berkshire County hint at the less-than-tranquil reality teeming below the surface: “HOUSATONIC RIVER FISH & WATERFOWL CONTAMINATED WITH PCBs. DO NOT EAT.”

Lorianne DiSabato/Flickr

First synthesized in the late 19th century, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are pervasive chemicals once used in hundreds of industrial applications, from plasticizing paint to insulating electrical equipment. General Electric was a major user of PCBs, including at its riverside plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, from the 1930s until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the production of the chemicals in the late 1970s. By then, GE had already discharged an estimated 600,000 pounds of PCBs into the Housatonic.

And this was wasn’t GE’s only instance of PCB contamination in a northeastern river. The company also dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, triggering a high-profile legal battle that NRDC has been involved with since the 1970s—and is still fighting today.

There’s good reason to fight so long and hard on the contamination. PCBs—all 200-plus types of them—are, to varying degrees, toxic to people and wildlife. “PCBs are just thoroughly horrible,” says Dan Raichel, an NRDC staff attorney. Multiple studies have proved the chemicals cause cancer in animals, and the EPA classifies them as probable human carcinogens. PCBs can also do significant harm to the immune and endocrine systems, affect reproduction, impair neurological development, elevate blood pressure, and cause skin rashes that can last for years. “It pretty much runs the gamut in terms of illness-causing,” Raichel says.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Berkshire communities, state governments, and environmental groups are still pushing GE to clean up its mess—a responsibility it has been avoiding. Decades may seem like a long time for contaminants to linger in a moving body of water. But PCBs were deliberately designed to persist under conditions that would cause other molecules to break down. “And persist,” Raichel says, “is exactly what they do in the environment.”

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

PCBs bind to soil, sediment, and the fatty tissues of animals. From there they work their way up the food chain, starting with the small invertebrates that find their food in the riverbed and eventually accumulating in the bigger fish and waterbirds that eat them. People living near the former GE plant in Pittsfield can be exposed to PCBs when they come into direct contact with contaminated soil or river sediment, consume contaminated fish, or even eat crops grown in the Housatonic floodplain.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health warns against eating fish, frogs, turtles, or ducks from the river, and though the Housatonic is a popular recreational fishing destination, it’s strictly catch and release. “It’s a lost resource to people in Berkshire County,” Gaherty says. The state of Connecticut, too, regularly releases advisories on eating Housatonic fish.

But even if you’ve never supped from this river—or live nowhere near it—you almost certainly have PCBs in your body. Yes, you. To add to the list of their nightmarish qualities, certain PCBs can volatilize, or evaporate into the air, where they can be inhaled or spread by weather systems and fall back down to the ground in rain or snow. Wind and ocean currents have facilitated their long-distance travel around the world—not even denizens of the poles or the bottom of the Marianas Trench have escaped the reach of PCBs.

In short: Once PCBs enter the environment, it’s not easy to get them out.

GE, a $260 billion company, has used its considerable resources to argue that it shouldn’t get them out. “GE has been digging its heels in the whole way,” says Dennis Regan, the Berkshire director for the Housatonic Valley Association’s Water Protection division. And the company’s reasoning has shifted over the years. Originally, GE contradicted the prevailing science by claiming there was no evidence that PCBs are harmful to human health. As pressure from the EPA and affected towns grew, GE changed tactics, arguing that disturbing the river sediment in a cleanup effort would make the contamination worse.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA, and GE managed to finalize a consent decree requiring GE to clean its PCBs from the Housatonic. Since then, the company has dredged the first two miles downstream of the Pittsfield plant, along with some other properties nearby, including an elementary school playground.

The GE Housatonic River site

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Slight progress is still progress, but 125 miles of contaminated river still remain. The EPA unveiled a $613 million plan last October that would span 13 years and require GE to dredge another 10 miles.

“These environmental battles can take a long time,” says Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney at NRDC who worked on the Hudson case against GE 40 years ago. And with only a partial cleanup effort for that river completed, the PCB levels in its fish are still not safe for human consumption. “It’s always an uphill fight to get companies to take responsibility for their pollution and to make real headway,” Chasis says.

And sure enough, GE is again pushing back against the EPA’s Housatonic plan. “This is their M.O.,” Gaherty says. “Delay and fight, delay and fight—they’re just hoping to wear everybody down so they can get away with a lesser cleanup.”

The latest point of contention is where the PCBs should go once removed from the river. Under the EPA’s plan, GE must take the contaminated soil out of state to a licensed toxic waste facility. GE, one of the richest companies in the world, argues that doing so would be too expensive and recently took its complaints to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, an independent panel of judges sometimes referred to as the agency’s “Supreme Court.” GE’s preferred solution is to create a local PCB dump in the towns of Lee and Lenox or Great Barrington, something the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee—which represents the six most affected towns—is not happy about.

Complicating things further is Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator under President Trump. Because Pruitt has a history of siding with industry over public health, the future of the fight for the Housatonic’s remediation now looks more uncertain than ever.

Shortly before the Environmental Appeals Board hearing in June, the EPA circulated a memo saying it wanted to reopen negotiations with GE over the case. “Looks like Massachusetts is about to become Exhibit A in the Trump administration’s efforts to go easy on polluters,” Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer representing the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, told the Boston Globe at the time.

Still, the hearing went forward as planned. “You don't put a hazardous waste site next to a river,” Pawa told the board. “You don't plunk it down in the middle of a community. People live there.”

And now, those people await the board’s decision.

Clara Chaisson
Northeast Dispatch

New Yorkers are resisting efforts to sextuple the number of anchorage grounds in the river and transform their backyard into a parking lot for oil barges.

onEarth Story

The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system brings precious water to three southern states. If only they could all get along.

onEarth Story

The EPA plans to rescind the Clean Water Rule, and the Senate gives Scott Pruitt a tongue-lashing.

Policy Primer

The incoming head of the EPA believes states should be in charge of their own environmental regulations. Been there, done that, got the oil-soaked T-shirt.

onEarth Story

Find a toxic waste dump near you! (And then don't go there.)

onEarth Story

The Los Angeles River—as faded and forgotten a Hollywood starlet as there ever was—could be poised for a comeback.

Western Dispatch

Local groups and government agencies are working together to remediate this Superfund site in the city’s midst, despite diminishing support from the EPA.

Seven States Join Effort to Ban Pesticide Toxic to Kids
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

The fight to ban chlorpyrifos has been heating up this week. NRDC, together with a coalition of advocacy groups—and now seven state Attorneys General—are ramping up the pressure on Trump’s EPA to ban a pesticide linked to learning disabilities in children. It is widely used on food crops in the U.S., including kid favorites like apples, oranges, and strawberries.

Most recently, the Attorneys General of New York, California, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont formally requested that EPA take immediate action to ban chlorpyrifos in a filing made public today. The states argued that Trump EPA’s refusal to ban this pesticide from food crops—despite the agency’s own analysis finding it too dangerous for children—must be overturned.

Chlorpyrifos residues widely found on fruits and vegetables, according to the state AGs, put the residents of their states at risk and represent a source of exposure difficult for states to address due to national, and international, markets for food.  They call on EPA to fulfill its “legal responsibility to protect Americans from unsafe residues on food, and particularly to protect infants and children against potential neuro-developmental and other adverse effects.”    

In filing formal objections, the state AGs join forces with public health, farmworker, and environmental advocates—including NRDC—that also filed a formal administrative appeal with the EPA yesterday, urging the agency to ban the chemical and challenging the agency on its continued use after EPA scientists have determined it to be unsafe. After close to a decade of extensive scientific review, EPA experts found widespread risk to children from contaminated air, water, and residues on food.

The public interest groups also filed a second protective court case yesterday that asks the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to directly review and overturn EPA’s refusal to ban the chemical.

While the legal efforts against the Trump Administration in the courts play out, advocates for agricultural communities are asking states, like California, to put the same fight into combatting harmful exposures from the millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos applied in the fields every year. Multiple studies show that children in agricultural communities are at the highest risk due to contaminated air, water, and dust in their homes, on top of the food residues found nationwide. In California, the state has the independent authority to get chlorpyrifos out of the fields, which would cut close to 20 percent of national use.

The Trump Administration must stop putting chemical corporations ahead of our children’s health. EPA’s own scientists have found this chemical is toxic to young kids—yet the agency continues to allow it to be sprayed on the food we feed them. We are demanding that the EPA Administrator do the right thing—and asking the court to step in to order EPA to stop putting our children’s health at risk.

Blog Post

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has found that residues from the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos are lurking on fruits & vegetables—up to 14,000 percent higher than the “safe” limits.

Blog Post

A group of over 60 scientists, pediatricians, nurses and clinicians supported the proposal to ban the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos from use on food.

Protect Our Children: The EPA Must Finalize the Ban of Chlorpyrifos
Fact Sheet

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate pesticide linked to learning disabilities in children. Widespread use in agriculture threatens farming communities, contaminates drinking water, and leaves toxic residues on fruits and vegetables. Because of risks to children’s health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned household use in 2000, but more than five million pounds of the insecticide are applied annually across the United States to a variety of crops, including apples, oranges, broccoli, berries, and tree nuts.

Given the EPA’s findings that chlorpyrifos is not safe, U.S. pesticide laws, including the Food Quality Protection Act, dictate that it no longer be used. To protect families, the EPA must move forward and finalize the proposed ban. We also urgently need action from states and businesses to support healthier farming practices.

Voices
An Avoidable Death: Why We Need Strong Food-Safety Standards
U.S. veteran Paul A. Schwarz, Jr. died from eating a piece of cantaloupe in a fruit cup—all because of a lack of food-safety protections.

The following is a transcript of the video.

Paul F. Schwarz, Independence, Missouri: If you're selling food in the public, you ought to do it the right way, follow the regulations, don't do any shortcuts, because that means life or death to people.

My father's name is Paul A. Schwarz, Jr. He was a great guy; he was my best friend; he was my golfing partner.

Mom and dad would share, after church, they would go to a restaurant, they would order their breakfast, they would also order a fruit cup; in the fruit cup was listeria-contaminated cantaloupe. Dad ate it, he started feeling ill, my sister took him the doctor and they said, well, it's flu.

His condition just got worse, and on December 18, 2011, he died of complications from listeriosis.

We found out that he had one of the strains of listeria from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado. They were processing the cantaloupe, trying to do it without a chlorine-based wash. They tried to cut corners, and they ended up killing 37 people by my count, and sickened 147.

All because of their lack of regulations, the lack of following common procedures in the industry, and pure negligence.

I learned that there wasn't a lot of inspections going on, I mean probably virtually none. It's just mind-boggling that you could sell food to the public and not have somebody come on your property and conduct an inspection of your, you know, a government entity.

This man gave everything for his country, and, eats a piece of cantaloupe and ends up dying.

Food safety should be paramount in our country. End of story.

It's the United States of America, we're better than that.

We're much better than that.

Tell your senators to oppose the bill for the "Risk to Americans Act"

Explainer

These toxic chemicals are so common in consumer products and manufacturing that they’re practically everywhere—including inside our bodies.

Midwest Dispatch

This Southeast Side community has helped give a voice to the environmental justice movement. Now Trump’s budget cuts threaten to silence it.

Southeast Dispatch

For drinking water, flood control, climate defense, habitat protection, fishing, swimming, and, of course, craft beer.

onEarth Story

"Frontline" takes a look at dangerous pathogens in America’s favorite meat.

Policy Primer

Let’s not forget what America looked like before we had the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our rivers caught on fire, our air was full of smog, and it stank (literally).

What's At Stake

The administration’s assault on our environment and health is unlike any threat we’ve ever faced.

Voices

Two brothers tell the story of how their mother died from eating peanut butter, all from a lack of food-safety inspections.

Voices

As he took odd jobs to get by, Robin Tucker’s father developed 20 fatal tumors from being exposed to asbestos, a toxic mineral that is still legal in U.S. products—including children’s toys.

What's At Stake

The regulations that protect Americans’ health, economy, and environment now need our protection.

It’s Official: KFC Goes Drug-Free
Lena Brook

The chicken chain is the latest fast-food restaurant to commit to serving meat raised without human-use antibiotics.

Peter Muller/Image Source/Offset

What can America’s most iconic fast-food chicken chain do to fight the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections? Set a strong antibiotics policy for its chicken supply!

More than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold for use on livestock and poultry. And more than 96 percent of those drugs are routinely distributed en masse in feed or water, often to animals that are not sick, to speed up growth and help animals survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms. When livestock producers use antibiotics again and again, some bacteria become resistant, multiply, and spread to threaten humans. It’s a practice that is fueling the increasing failure of the drugs we rely on to treat a wide range of infections.

Unfortunately, federal policy regulating antibiotics use in agriculture has not stopped this misuse. But U.S. food companies are responding to growing consumer concern and committing to ending the use of medically important antibiotics in their chicken supplies.

Today KFC becomes the newest addition to this leader’s circle, announcing that after 2018, the company will only sell chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. This is great news for fried chicken lovers and, most importantly, for public health. NRDC has been calling on the company to set a meaningful antibiotics policy for its chicken supply since May 2016, when we launched our “Get KFC Chicken Off Drugs” campaign. Allies like U.S. PIRG, Consumers Union, and Food Animals Concern Trust have also been pressing the company to clean up its supply chain.

Given that KFC is the nation’s largest chicken-on-the-bone quick-service restaurant in the United States, we know its commitment to responsible antibiotics use will have an impact throughout the chicken industry.

Today we give KFC kudos for taking a strong stand that will help to protect the public against the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. We are also glad to know that consumers will be able to verify that the company is keeping its word, since the antibiotics practices of KFC suppliers will be regularly audited under the USDA Process Verified Program. We look forward to updates from KFC on its implementation progress in the year to come.

KFC’s announcement means that 10 out of the top 15 fast-food and -casual restaurant chains in the United States have now committed to some level of responsible antibiotics use for their chicken supply. KFC’s promise is especially important because the company only purchases a portion of the chickens from any given flock, due to standards for the birds they buy. This means its change in policy will affect a larger number of chickens than what the company purchases itself, since farmers have to raise all the birds in the same barn the same way.

KFC’s new policy is good news for all of us — chicken lovers or not — because drug-resistant infections (or “superbugs”) are becoming increasingly widespread. Conservatively, at least two million Americans get antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent Reuters investigation suggests that these numbers significantly underestimate the scope of resistant infections in the United States. Fortunately, the tremendous momentum we’ve seen in the chicken industry demonstrates that more responsible antibiotic practices are achievable and affordable. Looking at data from a 2017 WattPoultryUSA survey, NRDC estimates that more than 42 percent of the U.S. chicken industry is either under an antibiotics stewardship pledge or has already converted to responsible practices. KFC’s new policy will likely move this number even higher.

We are heartened by KFC’s decision to join the fight against drug-resistant superbugs. The transition to responsible antibiotics use in the chicken industry has happened in the span of just four years, proving that where there is a will, there is a way. I hope this will inspire other sectors of the livestock industry, like pork and beef producers, to follow suit.

Trump EPA Rejects Pesticide Ban, Threatening Kids' Health
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman Jennifer Sass

Toxic pesticide residues on food will remain a threat to children’s health as a result of the Trump administration’s rejection of the proposed ban on chlorpyrifos—a pesticide linked to increased risk of learning disabilities and  behavioral problems. This is yet another example of EPA Administrator Pruitt’s willingness to go against the expertise of the Agency's own staff and sacrifice children’s health for industry profits.

The Trump EPA’s denial of the NRDC and Pesticide Action Network 2007 petition to ban chlorpyrifos contradicts EPA’s own analysis from November 2016 (just five months ago!) that found widespread risk to children from residues of the pesticide on food, in drinking water, and in the air in agricultural communities. Up until last night, EPA explained that because of these risks a ban was needed to protect children's health.

Pruitt’s decision contradicts the guidance from experts within the agency itself, reflecting a stark refusal to follow the science. Indeed, today’s about-face move was chock full of “alternative facts” to defend this reversal.

Here are the real facts about chlorpyrifos from real experts on children’s health:

  • Significant scientific research points to a link between chlorpyrifos and learning disabilities. From the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Multiple epidemiological and toxicological studies indicate that children who have had an exposure to organophosphate pesticides such as chlorpyrifos in both urban and agricultural settings are at increased risk for abnormal neurodevelopment with persistent loss of intelligence and abnormalities of behavior.”
  • EPA’s own experts have raised the alarm for a decade. Since 2007, EPA has convened three independent scientific review panels (2008, 2012, 2016)—at each one, experts affirmed the evidence of harm to children at levels lower than allowed by EPA and raised concerns that current exposures could therefore put children at risk.
  • Studies show that children are exposed to the chemical through fruits and vegetables. Since 2000 when indoor uses of chlorpyrifos were banned—due to concerns about impacts to children’s health—numerous studies have tied children’s exposures to pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. As shown in the graph below, when children were fed an organic diet (lacking residues) the evidence of chlorpyrifos measured in their body decreased dramatically and when they resumed the conventional diet, their levels went back up.

Despite these real facts, the Trump administration has decided to put the needs of chemical corporations before children’s health. Parents shouldn’t have to worry that a dangerous chemical might be lurking in the fruits and veggies they feed their kids. If the EPA refuses to protect the American people from this hazardous pesticide, we'll take them to court. The health of our children depends on it.

Data from Lu et al 2006

Data from Lu et al 2006

  • EPA’s 2016 analysis found that any amount of chlorpyrifos residue on popular fruits and vegetables, like apples, can result in unsafe exposures for kids. These residues are routinely found even on the inside of fruit you peel, like bananas, oranges and melons.
  • Children in agricultural communities, like in California, are doubly and triply at risk because in addition to food, they are faced with unhealthy levels in the air drifting off of fields and higher risk of contaminated drinking water.
  • Nearly 50 scientific researchers, medical doctors, nurses, and public health professionals sent EPA a letter urging cancellation of the remaining agricultural uses of this dangerous neurotoxic pesticide, and praising the conclusions of EPA’s 2016 human health risk assessment. 

Experts warn of an alarming increase in learning disabilities. We cannot let these facts be ignored. We need to do everything we can to help our kids get off to a good start. This means getting toxic chemicals, like chlorpyrifos, out of our fields and off our children's plates. We will see Administrator Pruitt in court and require him to provide real evidence, not just “alternative facts.” In the meantime, in the face of EPA’s refusal to follow the science, families with young children (or on the way) should eat organic fruits and vegetables, as much as possible.

Blog Post

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has found that residues from the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos are lurking on fruits & vegetables—up to 14,000 percent higher than the “safe” limits.

Blog Post

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally took a step today to protect all children from the harmful effects of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos.

Blog Post

In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a group of over 60 scientists, pediatricians, nurses and clinicians supported the proposal to ban the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos from use on food.

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