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35 Years After Ban, Toxic PCBs Still Trouble Bloomington

Inerteen Capacitor

[slideshow 2]

This is the first in a three part series on PCBs.

A toxic chemical commonly known as PCB still exists in Bloomington, decades after the plant that used the material closed. That's because the plant dumped the chemical down drains, put devices filled with the material in landfills and gave away treated sludge as fertilizer.

In a back room at the Monroe County Hazardous Waste Center Operations Director Scott Morgan shows more tangible evidence of the lasting effect PCBs have had on Bloomington.

He twists the lid off a bucket. Inside are capacitorssmall devices used to store electricity. Some are round, some are square, and all of them are small enough to hold in your hand. Several of them also bear the name Westinghouse, an electric company that used to own a plant in Bloomington.

"So we know exactly where they came from," Morgan says. "Quite the history with some of these."

How Westinghouse Introduced PCBs To Bloomington

When Westinghouse Electric Corporation started building capacitors in Bloomington around 1958, a group of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs had become a standard in the electrical manufacturing industry.

PCBs make almost ideal electrical insulators. They don’t conduct electricity. They don’t burn except at very high temperatures, so they solved a pressing safety problem by keeping devices like capacitors from short-circuiting and catching on fire.

They are also toxic.

By the time Congress banned them in the late 1970s, Westinghouse had already dumped more than a million pounds of PCB-laden waste in and around Monroe County. The resulting cleanup has so far cost the company’s successor nearly $250 million.

Some of the damage can’t be undone. Research shows workers once exposed on the job or residents who encountered it in their environment may face a heightened risk for certain diseases.

[slideshow 1]

Thomas King worked at Westinghouse for 30 years from 1963 to 1993. He says at the plant, the company’s brand of PCBs called Inerteen was everywhere.

"At one time I worked on the fill and solder line," he says. "We filled the capacitors up to a level where they almost wouldn’t take anymore. Then we’d solder a plug in them. You always had Inerteen splashing all over you and getting on your clothes and getting in your ears and getting in your hair."[pullquote]You always had Inerteen splashing all over you and getting on your clothes and getting in your ears.[/pullquote]

"If you worked in it and knew the smell, you knew exactly what it was," says another former Westinghouse worker, Isaac Browning. "Most people didn’t want to get it on their vehicles or nothing,"

Browning says Inerteen had a consistency like "oily water."

"If you had it on your clothes and get in your car, you’d get it on your car seat. It was awful hard to get rid of," he says.

But Browning says he and his coworkers didn’t suspect Inerteen was anything more than annoying to work with, which is what Westinghouse told them.

"Oh yeah, we don’t have to worry about it. It wasn’t going to hurt you," says another former employee, Kenny Seek, recalling the words of his supervisors. "We had one plant manager come back there and took Inerteen and put it all over his face to prove it wouldn’t hurt. I think he’s dead now though. I’m not sure."

The EPA Bans PCBs

The company’s reassurances ignored a growing body of research linking PCBs to a variety of serious health problems. The research eventually caused them to be banned in 1979. But it took a while to get there.

Here's a look at how PCBs were banned and what has happened both in Bloomington and nationally since then:

As you can see from the timeline, PCBs weren't banned until 50 years after Monsanto started using them. So why did it take so long for the government to ban the toxic substance?

By the late 1960s studies had established their toxicity in animals and raised questions about whether they caused cancer. It’s not that industry had misunderstood the dangers of PCBs.

It’s that prior to the 1970s, the government hadn’t given much scrutiny to industrial chemicals, says Indiana University law professor John Applegate.

"Pesticides have been regulated for decades and decades," Applegate says. "Chemicals that go into food have been regulated for decades and decades. But the risks of general industrial chemicals were largely unregulated unless it made its way into some kind of waste stream or made its way into the food stream."

A landmark piece of legislation called the Toxic Substances Control Act changed that.

Passed in 1976, TSCA [pronounced Tosca] gave the Environmental Protection Agency – then just a few years old – the authority to regulate known and newly created chemicals not covered by other laws. It called out a handful of substances for immediate action. Among them were lead, asbestos and PCBs.

"You’ll see this occasionally, that the particularly salient problem at the time is called out, but it’s within the context of a much more general statute trying to set up an architecture for chemical regulation," Applegate says.

TSCA forbade the manufacturing of PCB and its use in products after 1979. Anticipating the ban, Westinghouse made plans to ship about 100 drums of PCBs from Bloomington to a plant it owned in Brazil, where its use would still be legal, in 1977.

Why PCBs Still Exist In Bloomington

But 1979 did not bring the end of PCBs in Bloomington. By then Westinghouse had been releasing them into the local environment for almost two decades.

Usually, it started when a capacitor failed a quality check.

"When they had bad capacitors they had guys cutting the tops off and pouring it directly  pouring it right in the drain," Seek says. "I mean right in the sewer drains. Ain’t no wonder it’s everywhere."

PCBs built up in sewer pipes and contaminated the treatment plant. Some people ended up with PCBs in their gardens because the plant used to give treated sludge away as fertilizer.

Other capacitors ended up at local landfills, where open burning may have served to further disperse PCBs.

Bloomington Utilities Deputy Director John Langley says the dumps treated capacitors like other garbage, throwing them in with items such as wood pallets.

"You get in wood pallets – you’re going to dig a hole and put those in there, or you want to bury the ash? So you pour some oil or gasoline on them, paint, whatever, and in those days you could bring anything to a landfill," he says. "They didn’t look at what you have."

The pollution might have been a short-term problem if only PCBs broke down easily. But they persist in the environment as well as they persist in capacitors. A massive cleanup has yet to erase their footprint in Bloomington.

At the Monroe County Hazardous Waste Center, Morgan says he no longer tries to guess when he’ll see the end of old PCB capacitors and light ballasts coming in for disposal.

When they get a drum-full, the center sends it on to a company in Greenwood.  From there they go to a processing center in Phoenix, Arizona.

"The PCB-containing material will actually go to an incinerator, and then all the other types of materials that cannot be recycled will unfortunately – like the potting and things – will have to go to a landfill," he says.

The center’s annual report shows it received about 3,500 pounds of old light ballasts last year. Morgan estimates about half of those contained PCBs.

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