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America's #1 Superfund Polluter: General Electric

The most frequent, and perhaps the most notorious, of the Super Polluters is General Electric. Number five in the Fortune 500 with revenues of $89.3 billion and earnings of $8.2 billion in 1997, General Electric has been a leader in the effort to roll back the Superfund law and stave off any requirements for full cleanup and restoration of sites they helped create. GE, owner of NBC, the nation's number one television network, and a host of subsidiaries continues to wage a high profile campaign against efforts to require cleanup of their current Superfund sites (including 200 miles of the Hudson River, the nation's largest Superfund site). They are still fighting EPA efforts to list new Superfund sites where GE is a PRP, most notably in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where GE has contaminated the Housatonic River and parts of the neighboring community. Super Polluters examines the reported practices of GE at both the Hudson River and Pittsfield, MA sites, as well as their legislative efforts to free themselves of liability and responsibility for cleanups.

THE HUDSON RIVER: Cultural Landmark, Superfund Site

Of General Electric's 86 Superfund sites, the most widely publicized and potentially the most costly to remedy, is the so-called "Hudson River PCBs" site, the largest Superfund site in the country, 200 miles long. The Hudson River PCB site is the result of GE dumping more than one million pounds of cancer-causing Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River over a 30 year period in what New York Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert calls "among the most clear-cut and destructive cases of industrial pollution ever recorded." PCBs were widely used as insulators in electric transformers and capacitors in the 40s, 50s and 60s until they were banned in 1977.

Classified by the EPA as a known animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen, the PCBs dumped by GE lie at the bottom of the Hudson, where they have contaminated the fish population and devastated the $40 million per year commercial and recreational fishing industry. In addition to their potential to cause cancer, PCBs are being closely studied for their possible effects on immune systems, neurological development, and reproduction. Like many toxic chemicals, PCBs may pose a special health risk to infants and children. An "EAT NONE" health advisory from New York State applies to women of childbearing age and children for all fish species from the Hudson. For other people, the health advisories vary by location and fish species, but generally limit consumption to one meal per week or per month.

At least 40 "hot spots" of PCBs still exist in the river and these hot spots are the major source of continued releases of PCBs into the water column. Environmentalists, citizens and commercial fishermen have pushed EPA to require GE to dredge the river in order to remove the PCB contamination. Dredging, the most commonly selected remedy for PCB-contaminated sediments at Superfund sites, would mean scooping up the contaminated sediments at the bottom of the Hudson River and removing them, probably to a properly lined and monitored hazardous waste landfill.

While local environmentalists including Scenic Hudson view dredging as the best cleanup option, General Electric has fought a pitched 20 year battle to avoid dredging because of the potential cost to the company. GE has long argued that the PCBs will gradually detoxify themselves through "natural attenuation" (essentially dilution over time) and that the contaminated sediments are being covered by "clean" sediments and shouldn't be disturbed.

The Clinton Administration's stance on the issue of dredging the Hudson has been somewhat schizophrenic. In September, 1997, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt blasted GE for their trying "to weaken and gut" the Superfund law. At the time, Secretary Babbitt stated that "The fact is, the sickness of this river today is directly traceable to the General Electric Company." However, only 6 months later, in February, EPA announced that they would take an extra 18 months to study the issue further before making a final cleanup recommendation and would make no decision until the end of the year 2000.

At least 41 of GE's 86 Superfund sites include sediment contamination and could therefore require dredging. Because of the potential costs of dredging, GE will fight every effort to impose dredging as a cleanup remedy. The other highly visible fight in that regard is currently taking place in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

PITTSFIELD: Where GE Dumped and "Donated" PCBs

GE's battle to avoid ever dredging the Hudson River has led the company to work overtime opposing dredging at many of their current or potential Superfund sites, in order to avoid setting any precedent for successful dredging that would increase pressure to dredge the Hudson.

In the last year, the most high profile battle being waged between General Electric and EPA has been over how much to clean up the Housatonic River and surrounding areas of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and whether it should be listed as a Superfund site.

Like the Hudson River factories, GE's Pittsfield facility built transformers and capacitors using PCBs as a fire retardant from the 1940s up until the late 1970s when they were banned. Like at the Hudson River site, large amounts of PCBs drained, leaked or were dumped into the Housatonic river, which runs through Connecticut to Long Island Sound. General Electric and EPA are now fighting a very public battle over dredging up to 12 miles of the Housatonic river. When negotiations between GE and EPA broke down in April, EPA's regional Administrator John DeVillars announced his intention to list the Housatonic as a Superfund site by November, 1998. The public and legal battle between GE and EPA has continued to escalate since the DeVillars announcement.

GE's contamination of the Housatonic is only part of the story in Pittsfield. Reporters for the Berkshire Eagle gradually learned that in the 1940s and 1950s, General Electric had "donated" soil, contaminated with extraordinarily high levels of PCBs, to Pittsfield homeowners and schools to use as "fill" for their yards and playgrounds. According to stories in the Wall Street Journal, PCB levels in the contaminated fill have been measured as high as 40,000 PPM. The state of Massachusetts has established a "safe level" for PCBs found in residential landfill of 2 PPM. While EPA and citizens of Pittsfield have pushed GE to pay for removal of the contaminated soil spread throughout the community, GE has consistently pushed to simply "cap" the contaminated sites with two or three feet of dirt, a far less costly remedy -- for GE.

According to reports in the Wall Street Journal and Berkshire Eagle, General Electric may have taken steps to hide the memos revealing the past practice of donating contaminated fill to citizens from investigators and EPA. The Boston Globe reported in March that a report prepared for the Massachusetts Attorney General by a team of scientists found that GE had misrepresented the results of two key studies to downplay the health risks posed by PCBs.

In addition, GE has pulled out all the stops in its effort to avoid having the Housatonic River and Pittsfield plant listed as a Superfund site. Veiled threats to close their plant in Pittsfield, running 30 full page ads in the Berkshire Eagle questioning the health risks of PCBs, and threatening to tie EPA's efforts up in court are just some of their tactics. And when economic blackmail, media power, distorting scientific studies, and the threat of litigation aren't enough, there is always the legislature.


General Electric has been aggressive and persistent in its efforts to obtain legislative "relief," at both the state and national level, from its cleanup responsibilities in Pittsfield, along the Hudson, and at scores of other Superfund sites.

In May, Massachusetts state Representative Peter Larkin (D), offered an amendment to the state budget bill that would have absolved GE of any liability for land transferred to the city's newly created Economic Development Authority. When the amendment was discovered and exposed by MASSPIRG Legislative Director Rob Sargent, Larkin and his staff suggested it was all a mistake or misunderstanding and the amendment was dropped.

Politicians aren't so easily chagrined at the national level. After failing in his initial effort in May to surreptitiously attach an amendment indefinitely delaying EPA's authority to require GE to dredge the Hudson and Housatonic Rivers to completely unrelated transportation legislation, House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon recently managed to have the special provision included as a so-called "rider" to EPA's budget. Solomon, whose district includes the two GE plants that dumped PCBs into the Hudson, has been a strong protector of General Electric's interests, at the expense of his colleagues whose districts contain some part of the contaminated Hudson river. Legislation containing the special "GE rider" is moving through Congress and may be subject to a vote eventually, although Solomon and General Electric would prefer that their special fix never be put to a vote of Congress in the light of day.


As GE's battles over cleanups on the Hudson and in Pittsfield have intensified and press coverage has increased, GE CEO Jack Welch, perhaps coincidentally, has recently been featured in flattering profiles both on television and in print. On June 7, BusinessWeek magazine ran a front page profile billed as a "Close-up Look at America's #1 Manager." While the 15 page story rhapsodized about General Electric's profitability and both the physical ("muscular," "laser-blue eyes") and professional ("feisty," "remarkably compassionate and caring") attributes of CEO Welch, BusinessWeek never mentioned GE's Superfund troubles, or the trouble GE has given thousands of citizens living near their contaminated Superfund sites. While Welch's "philosophy" of "leadership" was examined ad nauseum, no insight was offered on GE's strategy of seeking to remove their toxic cleanup liability through backdoor legislative efforts in both the Congress and state legislatures.

The confluence of confrontation over Superfund and blatant greenwashed corporate packaging, was demonstrated with even greater clarity one month later. On July 9, EPA Administrator Carol Browner testified before the Environmental Conservation Committee of the New York State Assembly to condemn GE's campaign to deny the health risks posed by PCBs. Browner castigated GE for their public statements that "living in a PCB-laden area is not dangerous." Browner charged that GE's campaign was endangering public health by interfering with state and federal efforts to discourage citizens, particularly children and young women, from eating fish contaminated with PCBs. The testimony marked the first time during her tenure that the Administrator had appeared before a state legislature. Browner's testimony was reported in The New York Times on July 10.

Three days later, on July 13, GE CEO Jack Welch and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were featured on NBC's Today show with host Maria Shriver. The first lady was praising Welch for GE's contribution of $5 million to help restore a museum for Thomas Edison. Neither the first lady or Shriver raised the issue of EPA Administrator Browner's testimony and charges of GE's irresponsible corporate conduct during the part of the segment that was broadcast on the GE-owned TV network.

Nevertheless, media reports on the actions and attitudes of General Electric, as personified by CEO Welch, continue to garner press coverage. The August, 1998 issue of Harper's Magazine, published one week after the Today Show appearance, features a transcript of an exchange between Welch and Sister Patricia Daly, a Dominican nun who rose on behalf of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to confront Welch about its pollution record at GE's April shareholder meetings. She called upon Welch and GE to help develop a public education campaign to warn citizens of the Hudson River Valley of the dangers of eating PCB-contaminated fish. Welch responded with the non sequitur that GE's use (but not disposal) of PCBs was legal and stated flatly that "PCBs do not pose health risks." Welch rejected Sister Daly's request, stating, "It is not our job to educate."


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