Photograph by Steven Higgs
Toxic PCBs have contaminated Bloomington since the 1950s. Corporate-friendly "cleanups" negotiated by local, state and federal officials have only reduced their escape into the environment, not eliminated it from the former Lemon Lane Landfill and other area PCB Superfund sites.
If you moved to Bloomington within the last 25 years or so, you might not have heard about the PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) debacle in Bloomington and the surrounding area. It's not the kind of information that IU gives its incoming freshmen during orientation or that realtors and landlords bring up with their prospective home buyers and tenants.
Six PCB Superfund sites lie within 20 miles of the Courthouse Square. And PCBs cause cancer, neurologic disorders, endocrine system disruption, reproductive problems and birth defects in people and nonhuman animals. Often associated with PCBs are other chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as dioxin and furans. Dioxin is the most powerful chemical carcinogen known. It's second only to radiation as the most potent carcinogen discovered to date. It was used in the Vietnam War as a defoliant called Agent Orange.
The early days
The Westinghouse Corp. (now CBS) manufactured PCB-filled electrical capacitors in Bloomington for about 30 years. The PCBs, manufactured by Monsanto under the trade name Innerteen, were used as insulating fluid. In 1975 a Bloomington newspaper reporter discovered that since about 1958, Westinghouse had routinely poured PCBs into the Bloomington sewer system and dumping defective, PCB-filled capacitors at eight locations: Lemon Lane Landfill, Neal's Landfill, Neal's Dump, Bennett's Quarry, the Winston Thomas Sewage Treatment Plant, the Anderson Road Landfill, Fell Iron and Metal (a salvage yard) and the Westinghouse property. The first four are on the National Priorities List, a list of contaminated sites commonly referred to as Superfund sites.
Westinghouse workers with occupational exposure to PCBs are experiencing above-normal rates of brain cancer and malignant melanoma. Many have already have died from those diseases. Many Westinghouse workers have PCB blood levels 100 times higher than those in the general U.S. population; one worker has the highest blood level ever detected in a human being, 3,450 parts per billion.
Residents of a trailer park downstream from the Westinghouse plant have health problems, among them miscarriages and birth defects, that are associated with exposure to dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs. Impoverished people who scavenged PCB-filled capacitors from dumps so they could sell the metal and heat their houses by burning the oily PCBs also have health problems associated with exposure to the chemicals.
For years people burned PCBs out in the open at the dumps. Over a period from 1957 to 1975 the City of Bloomington gave home gardeners thousands of tons of free, "organic" but actually PCB-contaminated sewage sludge from the City's Winston-Thomas Sewage Treatment Plant. No one kept records of who took the sludge or where they applied it, but in 1976 the Monroe County Health Department made an attempt to solicit that information with a notice in the local newspaper.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engineer said he thought that just one site, the Lemon Lane Landfill, contained over 650,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste.
Recognition of the toxicity of PCBs and other chlorinated hydrocarbons occurred in the 1930s. A conference on the dangers took place at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1937, and numerous papers on the toxicity of PCBs and other chlorinated hydrocarbons were published before 1940. Westinghouse can't claim that the dangers of PCBs were unknown when the company began exposing its workers to them and dumping them in and around Bloomington.
The Consent Decree
In December 1984, five parties -- Westinghouse and the city, county, state and federal governments (the last represented by the EPA -- announced that they had secretly agreed to a legal agreement known as a consent decree, mandating use of the world's first incinerator to burn garbage and PCB-contaminated soil and sewage sludge -- a veritable dioxin factory since incomplete incineration of PCBs creates dioxin.
The hazardous waste incinerator would be fueled by burning municipal solid waste and sewage sludge. The operating expenses were to be paid by the citizens through "tipping fees" to Westinghouse for burning the trash.
If the plan was successful, Westinghouse, the polluter that ravaged our community, planned to market such incinerators for profit.
After many years of tireless and creative resistance, grassroots activists defeated the incinerator project. But that still left the hazardous waste to clean up.
The cleanup today
Federal law requires that every Superfund site undergo a set of analyses, a "remedial investigation/feasibility study" (RI/FS), to assess the extent of the damage and available cleanup methods before the choice of the best method (or methods) is made. By law, if a site doesn't receive an RI/FS, it can't undergo a cleanup because the extent of the contamination and potential methods of remediation have never been assessed.
The Bloomington sites never underwent RI/FSs but are undergoing "cleanups" nonetheless, including excavation of "hot spots" on some of the sites.
A recent amendment to the consent decree spells out the cleanup at three of the sites.
As opposed to what the original consent decree called for, the current plan for Lemon Lane Landfill, Neal's Landfill and Bennett's Dump doesn't mandate that all the contaminated material at those sites be excavated. Instead, much of it will remain where it is, with a plastic cap over the site and continuous water and sediment treatment to capture and treat the PCB runoff. The sites won't be lined with an impermeable barrier.
"Despite the massive contamination of our area, health studies of the population at large have never been done."
In the updated plan, CBS will assume ownership of and expand a water treatment plant at the Illinois Central spring (part of Lemon Lane Landfill). CBS must operate the plant until the groundwater concentration is 0.3 parts per billion or lower for 12 months straight.
The updated plan for Neal's Landfill is to expand the groundwater collection and treatment there.
For Bennett's Dump the amendment stipulates that CBS install a drain that's supposed to lower the water level at several quarry pits in the area and also diminish the releases of PCB-contaminated water there. CBS must also build and run a new treatment plant and collection trench to intercept all remaining releases of PCB-contaminated groundwater before it flows into Stout Creek. CBS must operate the plant until the concentration of PCBs in the groundwater is 0.3 parts per billion for a consecutive 12 months.
Contaminated soil under the Westinghouse (later ABB) factory on Curry Pike will be excavated and disposed of in another community until the remaining PCBs reach an acceptable level.
The amendment requires CBS to pay EPA $6.6 million for some of the costs of the cleanup and $1.8 million in public restitution for harm done to natural resources, small fractions of CBS's annual profits.) As was true for the original Consent Decree, the amended decree does nothing for the Westinghouse workers exposed to PCBs occupationally or for the other people injured from exposure to them.
What people need to know
The PCB cleanup is far from over. EPA will be busy here for years monitoring the Superfund sites.
Like every other community polluted with hazardous waste, Bloomington deserves a complete PCB cleanup, a thorough detoxification of the community. What it's getting is the cheapest cleanup that CBS and its allies at EPA could think up.
Throughout the incinerator battle, activists demanded a complete cleanup with the latest proven technology to be performed on the contaminated waste in situ, or where the waste lies. Today that technology could be bioremediaton, the injection of microbes into the karst -- the irregular limestone system of sinkholes, underground streams and caverns that lies under the soil in this region -- to break down the PCBs.
However, since an RI/FS hasn't been done, there's no way to determine which technology would be the best because the extent and composition of the contamination are unknown and the remediation alternatives unexamined.
The activists struggled unwaveringly for a cleanup method that would remediate the problems where they are rather than foisting our hazardous waste on another community, yet that is happening today when the waste is shipped to off-site hazardous waste landfills or incinerators.
The activists demanded complete excavation and disposal of all the contaminated material, not just hot spots.
The cleanup plan doesn't address a pressing problem, the volatility, or evaporation, of PCBs into the air. Rain forces underground PCBs to the surface, the contaminated water is released into springs, and PCBs escape into the air. The cleanup treats only the groundwater and soil. EPA and CBS succeeded in convincing the federal judge who presided over the amendment to mistakenly think that the air releases aren't significant.
Thomas Alcamo, remedial project manager of EPA Region 5 and the EPA employee in charge of the cleanup, did not reply to an e-mail asking questions about the procedures the cleanup is following.
Libby Frey, a local biologist and activist, has been working on the issue since 1976. She sued EPA in 1990 and 2000. The latter lawsuit sued EPA for not performing an RI/FS and for more comprehensive excavation and detoxification of contaminated soil. Neither suit has been resolved.
What we have here, according to Mick Harrison, one of Frey's attorneys, are "uncontrolled dumps with domes."
The health studies that were never done
Despite the massive contamination of our area, health studies of the population at large have never been done. The Indiana State Board of Health did collect blood and information from local residents in the early days but never reported any results.
"The PCB cleanup is far from over. EPA will be busy here for years monitoring the Superfund sites."
Harrison points out that fetuses today are overexposed to persistent organic compounds, of which PCBs and dioxin are two, and are born with 50 times the body burden of PCBs and dioxin officially deemed "tolerable" for an adult. And children, whose bodies are developing, are more sensitive to chemical insults than adults are.
Breast-feeding, though the optimal way to feed infants, increases the infants' body burden of PCBs and dioxins by transferring them from mothers to infants in milk.
With infants born carrying PCBs, receiving them from breast milk and being exposed to them from other sources before and after birth, the PCBs in Bloomington almost certainly have health consequences for this community. We do know that PCBs are volatilizing and therefore exposing people who live here. However, until health studies are performed, we won't know how the cleanup itself and the "cleaned up" sites are harming us.
The health effects of the PCBs and the true extent of the contamination here are two of the many pieces of information we might never obtain about our PCBs. We do know that this community is receiving a PCB cleanup that is vastly less adequate and less just than what the activists strove for and what the community merits.
Linda Greene is a veteran PCB activist in Bloomington. She can be reached at email@example.com. Attorney Mick Harrison contributed to this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See for Yourself
Maps of Monroe and Owen County Superfund sites: