4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
New Yorks struggle to remove toxic chemicals from its soil, air, and water goes far beyond pesticides. Some toxic chemicals proved impossible to eliminate from industry. Others were dumped indiscriminately before their dangers were known. As New Yorks industrial jobs left in the 1970s and 1980s, the industries left the state with a multi-billion dollar cleanup project.
In a few instances, the state was able to register dramatic and rapid improvements as soon as it recognized a toxic waste problem. In 1971, for example, the DEC reported a 97 percent reduction in discharges of mercury into water because of simple controls. But victories like these were the exception. From the Niagara River to the Gowanus Canal, New Yorkers have engaged in epic battles over how to clean up their messes.
Among the states many horror stories of toxic waste, Love Canal is the one that stands out. On August 10, 1977, Niagara Falls Gazette reporter Michael Brown published the first front-page story about this working-class neighborhood. Brown, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, drew the worlds attention to the slimy black ooze from an abandoned dump that was coming back to the surface. A playground, basements, and back yards were sinking into potholes full of benzene and other chemicals from an abandoned Hooker Chemical plant. Miscarriages, leukemia, and childhood diseases were rampant in the neighborhood. Love Canal became a symbol of upstate New Yorks decline, and a warning to the world about toxic wastes.
Four pieces of federal legislation set the rules for New Yorks contentious cleanup. In 1976, The Toxic Substances Control Act required manufacturers to report to the EPA on the hazardous effect of their chemicals and mixtures, and authorized the EPA to restrict the use of these substances. Also in 1976, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act established a federal hazardous waste management program but allowed states to take over the problem once they set up their own agencies. New York enacted its hazardous waste control program in 1978, just as the storm was breaking at Love Canal.
The third major piece of toxic waste legislation was Superfund, or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. This was passed in 1980 to provide some of the massive funds that were needed to clean up the nations worst toxic waste sites, including Love Canal and 79 others in New York. By the time the state received federal approval for their program in 1986, New Yorks voters had approved a $1.2 billion state Superfund to complemented the federal fund. Half of the $1.2 billion came from fees on industry, and half from taxpayers.
The fourth plank in the legal platform was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). It authorized the Secretary of Labor to set health and safety standards for the workplace, and safe treatment of toxic substances became a major focus of the law. OSHA was the culmination of the Industrial Hygiene movement of the 1930s and 1940. It aroused vehement opposition from businesses that complained of arbitrary and unreasonable rules. It continues to be a lightning rod for controversy. But statistics show that it has made the workplace safer.
Reviewing three of the major toxic problems in New York -- lead, PCBs, and radioactive waste is a quick way to understand the difficulty and expense of this problem.
Lead: Physicians have long known that inhaling or ingesting lead particles can cause major health problems, including mental retardation in children. By the 1960s, it was clear that adding lead to gasoline was causing a pollution crisis that could be prevented. In the early 1970s, motor vehicles poured 3,000 tons of lead a year into the air above New York City. The first New York controls on lead were not adopted until 1971, however, when the City adopted a gradual phase-out of sales of leaded gasoline in the five boroughs. Federal regulations spurred by the Clean Air Act began a national phase-out of leaded gasoline in 1973, but automobile companies fought the rules vigorously. In 1982, the Reagan administration even proposed rescinding the rules so that lead could stay in gasoline. It took a major outcry from scientists to keep the phase-out moving and three more years before 95 percent of lead was removed from the nations fuel pumps.
As the 15-year fight raged over leaded gasoline, public concern also turned to leaded paint. The sale of most leaded paints was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1977, but an estimated 27 million older housing units in New York had lead paint on their walls when the law took effect. In the late 1980s, about 1,000 New York City children a year were found with elevated lead levels in their blood because they ate paint chips or inhaled lead in dust. The problem was heavily concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. State and local laws now require building owners to cover lead paint and disclose its presence to new home buyers, but it will be decades before this everyday hazard goes away.
PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used for decades as insulating fluids in electrical equipment. They were also mixed into paints, adhesives, and dyes. Exposure to this chemical can cause skin eruptions, liver damage, and nervous system disorders. PCBs are also suspected of contributing to birth defects and cancer. When burned, they may be converted into dioxin, among the worlds most toxic substances. They are also very stable chemicals that can persist for years. Therein lies the problem.
Starting in 1947, General Electric dumping more than 500,000 pounds of PCBs, along with other by-products, into the Hudson River north of Albany. The Department of Environmental Conservation finally forced GE to stop in 1975. Most of the toxins were deposited in the silt along a 40-mile stretch of river, but some were carried as far south as New York Harbor. Ever since then, Hudson River fish have been severely contaminated by PCBs. Most commercial fishing on the Hudson was banned in 1976. A national ban on PCBs was enacted in 1977. The DEC first proposed a plan to remove the contaminated sediment in 1978. But it quickly became the captive of endless hearings, court claims, and counter-claims.
General Electric has insisted that the problem of PCBs in the Hudson River is not a pressing matter, and that it is doing what needs to be done to fix the PCB problem. According to Melvin Schweiger, former Senior Engineer and head of GE's Hudson River Project, GE has spent $165 million so far on PCB science, investigations, and studies, in addition to the costs to fix the actual PCB problem. The efforts made by GE include removing 132 tons of PCB's from the plant sites at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, putting in approximately 230 wells to control groundwater flow, and capping 60 acres of shoreline.
One result of the states protracted public battle with GE has been the growth of several powerful environmental organizations along the Hudson. These include Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, and Clearwater, which was founded by folk singer Pete Seeger in 1966. Clearwater tries to improve public access to the river, improve the quality of the water, and help the Hudson provide safe food. Clearwater also conducts many festivals that attract thousands of river-lovers. Its 106-foot replica of a Hudson River sloop is the only one of its kind.
PCBs were also the cause of a strange disaster in Binghamton. In 1981, an electrical fire broke out in a brand-new, never-occupied state office building in the center of town. Burning PCBs in basement transformers spread dioxin-laced smoke through the building, making it uninhabitable. It took over a decade for the state to figure out what to do with the building, and several years to clean it. The building finally opened in the mid-1990s.
Radioactive waste: The disposal of radioactive waste is not as big a problem in New York as it is in other states, mainly because New York depends less on nuclear power. But radioactive waste is a potent political issue, and state lawmakers have been aggressive in attacking the problem. The DEC began regulating radioactive discharges and radioactive waste in April 1974. After newspapers published sensational stories about West Valley in Cattaragus County, the states only commercial high-level radioactive waste burial site, the DEC closed it in 1975. Since then, the high-level radioactive wastes produced by power plants have been stored near the plants. Low-level wastes have been strictly regulated, and the state has monitored both processes. In 1982, the state Health Department took over programs that measure radiation levels in the environment.
Beginning with Love Canal, New Yorkers have learned a hard lesson: the short-term profit gained by abandoning hazardous wastes has to be repaid, over and over again, in cleanup costs. In 2000, the states Superfund ran out of money after tackling 401 of the states estimated 864 inactive hazardous waste sites. Keeping Superfund going will cost the state from $130 million to $250 million a year, with no end in sight. Illicit dumping of hazardous wastes is aggressively prosecuted by the DEC, but it is still a problem, particularly among small manufacturers in New York City.
Today, New Yorkers are among the nations most knowledgeable experts on the subject of toxic waste. Lois Gibbs, the Niagara Falls housewife who lead the protests of Love Canal residents, has become the nations leading citizen activist on toxic wastes. As chair of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, located in Falls Church, Virginia, Gibbs provides advice and support to activists around the country.