It was a pretty picture of a river winding its way through northwest Connecticut’s hill country that appeared on the front page of The Lakeville Journal a few days ago. But under the picture, the Journal told a tragic tale that will be repeated about more rivers and lakes around this country! “Fishermen used to stand knee-deep along this stretch of the Housatonic River which parallels Route 7 between West Cornwall and Cornwall Bridge. Since the recent disclosure of unsafe levels of PCBs found in fish taken from this portion of the Housatonic, this parking lot has often been empty, and many a fisherman no longer stops to cast a line,” said the caption.
PCB stands for “polychlorinated biphenyl” — a highly toxic industrial chemical which a General Electric plant in Pittsfield, Mass., dumped into the river for some 40 years. Most of the dumping stopped last March, but when it rains, PCB-soaked soil still leaches into the river.
TWO YEARS AGO, New York state officials learned that another General Electric plant poisoned the Hudson River with PCBs. Now it is the beautiful Housatonic and its varied fish life. The situation is very bad, indeed. Federal standards put the danger level to humans from PCB-contaminated fish at 5 parts per million (PPM). (The Food and Drug Administration is considering strengthening the standard to 2 ppm.) Connecticut state officials recently reported tests on brown trout (43 ppm), rainbow trout (9.1 ppm), white catfish (11 ppm), smallmouth bass (5.8 ppm), common sucker (38 ppm), and golden trout (4.6 ppm).
These tests led to a recommendation by the state health commissioner against eating the river’s fish from the Massachusetts border to Lake Lillinonah near Bridgewater. Additional tests are being conducted in the lower reaches of the waterway on its path to Long Island Sound in order to determine what further health warnings should be made.
PCB does not degrade nor does it pass through the human body. It accumulates in humans. It has caused cancer in tests with laboratory animals. PCB contamination of some food in Japan years ago’ caused serious illness among hundreds of Japanese villagers. In both the Hudson and Housatonic Rivers, the PCB is found deep in the sediment. Dredging the river bottom — an enormously costly process — might disperse the PCB more widely.
PROFESSIONAL opinions vary only about the degree of environmental persistence of PCB. Some say the fish could be unsafe to eat for centuries and that from now on fishing in the Housatonic is for people who are content to throw their catch back into the river. The state may even suspend its annual stocking of the Housatonic with trout.
One small businessman who was running an active bait shop has closed down. There are other economic losses to local tourism that will cost jobs. The bait shop owner put the matter wisely when he declared: “The river belongs to all of us, not to General Electric.”
And what is General Electric doing about all this? Its public relations arm is suggesting that the railroads and other firms also dumped PCB into the river. Besides, a company spokesman says, the giant manufacturer did not contaminate the river on purpose. That is right. The company poisoned the river for no purpose at all.
Is not a company, particularly one the size of GE, responsible at any time to consider what it is pouring into freshwaters which it knows are used for swimming, fishing or drinking? How far can the no-fault principle be carried when the behavior is gross or criminal negligence?
THE TOXICITY of PCB has been documented for years in the scientific literature. Presumably GE has people who can read these articles. But it was so much easier to let the Housatonic carry away GE’s wastes and with them the rights of Americans who will live, work, and play alongside this river.
Does General Electric plan on compensating anyone for its predations — the small business, the fisherman, the nearby residents? No. Will there be any damage suits by any of these afflicted groups? Possibly, but proving the direct connection between GE’s PCB and the particular damage may be difficult in a courtroom filled with hordes of GE-paid lawyers and specialists. Moreover, few people or groups can sustain the costs of lengthy litigation.
What about federal and state water pollution laws? PCB discharge standards came after the damage was done.
Suppose a street vendor dripped a known toxic chemical year after year down the gutter. Would the authorities have looked the other way? Would the vendor have been considered blameless, without fault? Hardly. A company like GE should be held to the highest standards of care, of knowing what, when and where it is using the public’s resources for its poisonous sewage.
The legendary Housatonic, so rich in Indian lore and New England’s history, survived the ravages of nature through thousands of years. But it could not survive General Electric.