GE and PCB's:
Reflections and Lessons
When it comes to protecting the
environment, General Electric likes to portray itself as a
good corporate citizen. In fact, GE has long been one of
the nation’s worst polluters, leads the nation in the
number of toxic cleanup or "Superfund" sites
under its past or present control, and routinely puts up
fierce resistance when any government agency calls them to
account for, and more importantly to pay for, repairing
the damage they have created.
'LIMITING OUR LIABILITY'
No example better illustrates this than
the long saga of GE’s so far successful effort to avoid
paying for a comprehensive clean up, including dredging,
of New York’s Hudson River. Between 1940 and 1977 GE
discharged over one million pounds of polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson. These emanated from GE’s
two adjacent plants in Hudson Falls and Ft. Edward, which
for many years have been represented by UE Local 332 (The
company has since closed the Hudson Falls plant.) PCB’s
were routinely used as insulators in the capacitors
manufactured at the two plants.
Ever since the discovery of the dangers of
PCB’s in the 1970’s (the EPA calls them probable
carcinogens), GE’s overriding goal has been to limit its
liability in the matter. Indeed then GE CEO Reg Jones
assigned one of his rising stars to negotiate with New
York state officials over the matter, a man by the name of
Jack Welch. At one point, Jones threatened to pull every
GE plant out of New York state if GE was treated too
roughly in the matter.
Ever since, GE’s strategy has been one
of delay and repeated insistence that various EPA studies
which documented the danger of PCB’s to humans and the
environment are "invalid". GE also claims that
the PCB’s will degrade on their own, making dredging
In March of last year, the Company
trumpeted the release of a study by the Institute of
Evaluating Health Risks (IEHR) which concluded that
workers exposed to PCB’s suffered no greater incidence
of cancer than the general population. What GE did not
immediately reveal was that they commissioned and paid
for the study!
In August, the EPA released the results of
a study which concluded that individuals who regularly eat
fish caught from a 40 mile stretch of the river from
Hudson Falls to Troy run an unacceptable risk of getting
cancer or suffering neurological damage. Other ill effects
include low birth weight in newborns.
The EPA is scheduled to make a preliminary
determination some time this year as to whether "hot
spots" in the river need to be dredged, with a final
decision expected in 2001. If dredging is ordered, it is
expected to cost GE in excess of $1 billion.
A NEW CHAPTER
The latest development occurred last
November when New York State Attorney General Eliot
Spitzer filed suit against GE for monetary damages
incurred by the state in maintaining a shipping canal
which runs adjacent to and in some places into the Hudson,
and which itself is PCB contaminated. He invited
communities along that stretch of the river which have
suffered damages such as declining property values and job
losses attributable to the contamination to join the suit.
And GE’s reaction? It’s strictly blame
the messenger. GE’s statement on the suit concludes as
follows: "This lawsuit has been brought by a man who
is fixated on garnering media attention and promoting his
personal political ambitions." And GE has retained
the firm of the long-time Congressman from the area (now
retired) Gerald Solomon, to lobby the EPA against
With this as background, it’s a good
time to review a little of what UE Local 332 members went
through when the dangers of PCB’s were discovered. What
follows are the reflections of retired UE International
Representative Ed Bloch, who worked with the members of
Local 332 during this critical time.
AND UE LOCAL 332:
A FEW REFLECTIONS
Retired UE International Representative Ed Bloch
UE Local 332 members are reading
front-page headlines about New York State suing to compel
GE to pay for the PCB’s they put in the Hudson River
with very special appreciation. Have they ever been
through it !!
The memories flood back on the major role
they played in fighting the worldwide pollution
catastrophe that finds seals in the Arctic Ocean with a
very high PCB content. That same catastrophe, of course,
drastically affected the health of many of the workers in
those departments of the GE capacitor mill that used PCB’s
in open vats, with spills all over the floor.
SOME OF WHAT
It was almost 25 years ago — before GE
started moving two-thirds of the jobs to the Maquiladora
zone in Mexico — that the small towns of Hudson Falls
and Fort Edward, learned about the inevitable relationship
between environmental and worker health-and-safety
problems. Here are a few of the more dramatic memories:
When NYS’s Environmental
Commissioner Ogden Reid outlawed further use of PCB’s as
insulators — citing international treaties the U.S. had
signed — GE announced it would have to close down the
plant (it was only learned later that GE had already
synthesized its own non-toxic insulator instead of relying
on Monsanto’s PCB product.)
In the chaotic union meetings
following GE’s threat to close the 1,250-worker plant
(the largest employer in Washington County), the Receiving
Department worker who jumped to his feet and announced
that one of his prescribed duties was to tear the
skull-and-cross bones labels off the Monsanto barrels.
The chaotic fear that swept the plant,
with the "Lone Campaigner" given free run of the
plant to collect signatures on a petition to demand union
agreement with GE to fight the Commissioner’s order
("just his political ambition anyway").
When GE took busloads of workers to
Albany to "save their jobs," Business Agent
Bernie Leonka’s sage strategic advice, "We know
this is a phony. But when you’ve got a stampede on your
hands, you don’t hold up your hand and say ‘stop.’
You say ‘follow me!!’ and make a U-turn down the
When the U-turn was made with splendid
help from the UE National, environmentalist and folksinger
Pete Seeger and others, the work of Dave Kotelchuck in
setting up a famous team of doctors to test what was
happening to the workers in the PCB departments where the
toxic was freely inhaled.
The 27-member team of doctors and
technicians from Mt. Sinai hospital who set up a MASH-type
testing center in a garage across the street from GE to
test 343 affected workers. The seething metropolis of Fort
Edward had never seen anything like this before. The
medics included Dr. Irving Selikoff, the world-renowned
specialist who had been fighting for 41 years to get
asbestosis recognized as the major lung killer that it is.
Plenty of serious disabilities were initially diagnosed,
especially respiratory and reproductive abnormalities.
When testing day finally arrived, GE
refused to allow workers to leave the plant and threatened
Business Agent Leonka with discharge. By this time the
tide had definitively turned, GE announced its own testing
program but the designated workers followed Bernie and
local president Dot Danahy anyway. It was a huge victory !
New York State then called a formal
hearing at which UE Local 332 testified with great help
once again from the UE national Office. The Hearing
Officer was Abraham Sofaer, later to be a national
Assistant Attorney General.
The subsequent mortality study which
found high degrees of cancer, auto-immune and reproductive
problems among workers in the PCB areas but couldn’t
seem to focus on the PCB’s as responsible instead of
other personal habits like smoking.
In the quarter of a century since then,
politicians beholden to GE and its billions have succeeded
in preventing a definitive judgement on GE that would make
GE responsible for removing the PCB’s they’d put
there. They didn’t, that is, until NYS Attorney General
Spitzer finally made the move. We’ll see what happens
But all the adverse publicity, all the
citizen litigation and above all the constant
pressure of UE Local 332 and its leadership finally
accomplished part of their objective. GE changed the
insulating oil in its capacitors and the mill itself. And
that was no small potatoes.
At least some of the safety and health
problems were remedied at the GE Fort Edward plant for the
workers whose jobs have not been sent elsewhere. And it
gave UE Local 332 members a tremendous political lesson on
how to hang in there against this giant corporation and
effectively fight the good fight.