From 1947 to 1977, General Electric released wastewater contaminated with PCBs into the Hudson River from plants located in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York. In 1976, when scientific and medical data indicated that PCBs were carcinogenic, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which outlawed the manufacture, processing and use of PCBs.
What are PCBs? “PCB” is short for polychlorinated biphenyls, which are man-made compounds that were manufactured and used extensively in transformers and capacitors, paints, printing inks, paper, pesticides, hydraulic fluids, lubricants, synthetic rubber, plasticizers, floor tile, brake linings, adhesives, carbon copy paper, fluorescent light ballasts, and asphalt. PCBs are mixtures of up to 209 individual chlorinated compounds, which are oily liquids or solids that are colorless to light yellow. Some PCBs can exist as vapor or in the air; they have no known smell or taste. These mixtures tend to be chemically stable and non-flammable with high boiling points and electrical insulating properties. There are no known natural sources of PCBs.
The same properties that were useful for industrial applications allow PCBs to persist somewhat indefinitely in the environment. PCB residues have been found in plant and animal tissues throughout the world. In addition, PCB residues have been found in human adipose tissue and breast milk. Because PCBs do not occur in nature, their dissemination is the result of human activity and release into the environment.
PCBs accumulate in sediment and bioaccumulate in the food chain. For humans, contaminated fish is a common source of PCBs. Inhalation and skin contact are likely to be significant routes of entry in occupational exposure.
PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer as well as negatively impact the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.
So what do PCBs buried in the Hudson River have to do with Texas? Well, early last summer, Texas started receiving literally trainloads of this toxic waste from New York. The PCB-contaminated waste will be buried in plastic-lined pits dug into the red clay beds of West Texas. GE plans to spend at least $750 million over the next five years to dredge the PCB-tainted sludge in the Hudson; when all is said and done, this clean up might be the largest Superfund site in U.S. history.
The TSCA authorization for Waste Control Specialists (WCS)—a hazardous waste disposal company that has profited immensely from Superfund cleanups was issued by the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on September 19, 2005. The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued WCS a hazardous waste permit first in August 1994 and a renewal on October 5, 2005 despite many scientific experts—including TCEQ’s own scientists—expressing serious concerns that this site is too close to the Ogallala and Pecos Valley aquifers and waste stored at the site could potentially leak into the groundwater.
As of January 26, 2010, WCS had received 16 full trainloads of PCB waste so far with a total weight of approximately 248,359,000 pounds.
WCS’s permit allows a landfill capacity of 5.423 million cubic yards. Initially, about half of this landfill would have been filled by the toxic New York sludge. However, recent evaluations by the EPA and GE indicate that their assessments of the amount and depth of contamination in the Hudson were significantly off. In all likelihood, GE will have to dredge much more of the Hudson sludge than initially anticipated—all of which will be sent by train halfway across the country to be buried in West Texas.
In addition to storing millions of pounds of PCB-contaminated sludge in West Texas, WCS has the distinction of being one of the only places in the entire country to obtain permits to store radioactive waste. In the summer of 2008, the TCEQ permitted two licenses to Waste Control Specialists to bury millions of cubic feet of radioactive waste in West Texas. After a four-year review, the commission’s own scientific staff unanimously recommended denying the permit, citing that the permit could not legally be granted because of its proximity to two aquifers and almost certain irradiation of groundwater.
Rather than take those recommendations, the commission’s executive director, Glenn Shankle overruled them. This allowed for permits that will earn WCS millions of dollars—and led to three of Shankle’s staff quitting the commission in protest.
Records show that Shankle was frequently meeting with WCS officials, attorneys and lobbyists during their permit application. Six months after stepping down at the agency, Shankle was working for Waste Control Specialists — the company he was previously supposed to be regulating. His contract as a lobbyist for them is estimated to be worth between $100,000 and $150,000 a year.
So while Shankle has been enjoying the “fruits of his labor,” West Texas has become the nation’s dumping ground for hazardous and radioactive waste, Texas’ own pay toilet.