Planet Waves | Buy Me A River | by Eric Francis


Lake Tear on the Clouds

Buy Me A River

Planet Waves for October 2000
By Eric Francis

From its secret beginning at tiny Lake Tear of the Clouds, the Hudson River unwinds for more than 300 miles through its long valley on the eastern rim of New York State. First a rapid stream, then a swift waterway swaying past scores of towns and cities, and finally becoming a voluptuous, brackish lakeway commingled with the sea, this one-of-a-kind river/estuary system is spawning place for hundreds of fish species who swim throughout the northern Atlantic coastal regions. At its mouth near New York Harbor stand the daunting Palisades cliffs, cut by ancient glaciers and witnessed in awe by Henry Hudson, the first European man to navigate the river's waters.

So how much for the whole hunk of real estate, that is, how much cash? Or rather, what fee would it require to use this astonishing work of creation as an industrial sewer for seven decades, pump it full of chlorinated, dioxin-tainted sludge and effluent known to induce multi-generational cancers, liver necrosis, birth defects, hormone mayhem and neurological damage? And in the process, to permanently decimate the fish, bird and plant population for hundreds of miles around, and contaminate the human population, which relies on the river for water to drink and food to eat? And then to leave the whole mess behind, with supertoxins evaporating into the air, with traces of poison from this very scene finding their way into living creatures all around the globe?

Pick a number.

How about $11 million.

Okay, $11 million, plus the cost of defending a few bureaucratic complaints, creating a bunch of "scientific" studies, and running endless feel-good newspaper and TV ads assaulting people with what nice guys you are -- the very guys who "bring good things to life" and in so doing, earn corporate annual profits in range of $5 billion (that's five thousand million dollars) every year, not counting things like executives' salaries (which are part of the cost of doing business, not profits).

GE's abandoned PCB-tainted factory in Hudson Falls, New York,
which is still leaking contamination into the river.
Photo courtesy of Sloop Clearwater.

The company is General Electric, and the chemical is called PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. Eleven million dollars is the sum total of one $4 million fine paid to the state twenty-four years ago in exchange for future legal immunity, plus a $7 million settlement paid to the fishermen whose entire industry was banned as a result of the contamination. Rest assured that both were paid grudgingly, but not without additional returns. The $4 million was a genius maneuver that shut down the legal process for close to three decades, maybe forever. For the $7 million fishing settlement, finalized in 1993, GE also purchased a commodity more valuable than advertising: silence. In exchange for about $17,500 each, paid in compensation for their entire career loss, the fishermen cannot discuss the details of their case against one of the most vicious polluters in our world.

Just for contrast, the botched PCB cleanup of SUNY New Paltz (which, incidentally, involved failed GE equipment that exploded, burned and spewed PCBs and dioxins) cost in excess of $50 million. GE, of course, didn't pay a cent of this, even though its equipment failed; the $50 mil will be covered by the next few generations of state taxpayers who pay off the construction bonds that made the cleanup companies rich.

In New York's Hudson River Valley, a debate, of sorts, is raging over whether GE should be compelled by the government to dredge thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated silt, sand and water from the river's bottom and banks. In addition to putting up its usual formidable fight in the regulatory process and manipulations within the political machine, GE has been waging an advertising blitz featuring images of kids talking about how cute the ducks on the river are, and how it seems so much cleaner these days, just like when grandpa was a boy -- or, in other words, spreading the message that dredging is surely not necessary.

People who care about the environment are, for the most part, in favor of compelling GE to clean up its mess, and with new technology, we're assured that it can be done pretty well. Environmentalists feel that GE doesn't want to do the job because it will cost money. But we, the people, say that's not our problem. It's theirs.

The entire debate, however, is an illusion, based on several false premises. One is the simple fact that a river can never truly be "cleaned up." Neither can it be restored to its original condition. There is no turning back from PCB contamination, neither in a college dormitory, nor once it has been allowed to flow unchecked for close to a century and has infiltrated every living cell of every animal, and attached itself to the very water, earth and air of which the river environment is made. Even if 95% of the PCB and contaminated sludge is removed, which would be more a miracle than it is a remote possibility, it does not take much PCBs to contaminate every living thing in an environment.

Tiny amounts of the chemicals in an aquatic environment transform into concentrations thousands or millions of times higher, within the living creatures that live there. These chemicals are extremely persistent; they were designed to be that way, and though there are claims of biological degradation are made, I have not seen any compelling evidence of this. And the longer actual scientists (rather than political scientists) study PCBs, dioxins and their chemical cousins, the less quantity of the substances is found to undermine and sabotage the most subtle processes of life.

From 1947 to 1977, two General Electric plants (at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, New York), discharged from 500,000 to 1.5 million pounds of PCBs directly into the Hudson. Over 300,000 pounds remain concentrated in bottom sediments of the river today, according to the organization Clearwater, which monitors the issue. Even if they are removed from the river system, these toxins will have to go somewhere; most likely they will be burned, which means being dumped into the air. For comparison, once again, the $50 million mess in New Paltz was caused by a few thousand pounds of PCBs.

Cost is a factor, true. In the mid 80s, it was estimated at $1 billion to dredge a five-mile stretch of the relatively miniscule Chicago River. It could, conceivably, cost $1 trillion to dredge the Hudson, a precedent GE does not want to set -- it has, after all, contaminated hundreds of rivers. So the idea, from GE's standpoint, is don't clean up anything, because once they start, they will never be finished.

GE, which used PCBs in the manufacture electrical equipment, and Monsanto, which created the PCB fluids, maintained that the chemicals were perfectly safe while they were freely pouring them into our Earth and water, even though their internal documents going back to 1936 indicate they were fully aware they compounds were deadly to humans and laboratory animals. Over the years their knowledge increased steadily. By the 1950s, GE was internally circulating 46-entry bibliography listing all of its references to PCB toxicity. Yet to this day, both companies fail to admit that there are any adverse effects on human health, though studies showing tragic effects continue to pour out of laboratories worldwide. In a 1993 statement to me, GE compared PCB toxicity to table salt and alcohol.

Yet on several well-documented occasions, court testimony and evidence have revealed that GE's partner, Monsanto, made up phony studies to hide cancer deaths caused by PCBs and dioxins in humans and lab animals. In the 1980s, GE purchased for approximately $1 million, then promptly disappeared, a study by Prof. David Wegman, which tracked cancer deaths in Massachusetts PCB workers. Earlier, GE had attempted to introduce fraudulent evidence (fish with 1/100 or lower than the toxins level of state samples) into the record of the 1976 Hudson River proceedings against it. These samples were thrown out as "unreliable." When the very same fish were retested by an honest lab, soaring levels of PCBs were found.

So what we have here is a case not of pollution of the Hudson; we have a case of fraud and mass murder and mass poisoning, of everyone who comes in contact with the river or its life forms, and of the tens of thousands of people who worked in the two GE plants.

We can, for the moment, make ourselves feel better by being in favor of dredging the river, but that is not the issue, and it makes a fine barrier for our grief about how the river can never be brought back to life, and how dredging, though it may remove some PCBs (and less is definitely better), will destroy any remaining balance of the ecosystem. The real question is what to do with General Electric and its peers, corporations the size of nations who are immune from lawsuits, pollution laws, regulations, fines and human emotions, and yet who have the civil rights of individuals and are, at the same time, physically immortal -- and who we support with our purchases.

It's was thirty years ago this very month that news of PCBs in the Hudson emerged, published, of all places, in an October 1970 investigative feature in Sports Illustrated by Robert H. Boyle. In his artful and terrifying work of journalism, Boyle presented cold data documenting the problem, and then pleaded with sportsmen to wake up to the issue of heavy metal and chlorine pollution. "Laws may be passed and laws may be broken," Boyle wrote as his article concluded. "In the end, the enforcement and abatement depend upon public opinion. If one lesson is to be learned, it is that we cannot release wide-ranging persistent poisons into the air or water. As Ovid wrote 2,000 years ago, 'Ill habits gather by unseen degrees. As brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas'."++

Additional Research: Carol van Strum

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