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Friday, December 18, 2009


PCB Dredges in Little Lake Butte des Morts (Lower Fox River)

When it comes to poisons, Rat fears warfarin like Superman fears kryptonite. For you humans in Wisconsin, warfarin is a rat poison developed at the UW-Madison decades ago. It's a blood-thinner that makes rodents bleed to death. Now some of you take it for your heart problems -- in limited doses, of course.

I digress, but only so far, as I talkin' human health today -- I'm talkin' PCBs. Of all the toxic nasties dumped into rivers, PCBs were the baddest: insidious, highly toxic, very persistent, and very mobile once they end up in river sediments or groundwater.

More Wisconsin history for you: paper helped build this state. We had trees for raw material, cheap and willing immigrant labor, and there were the rivers to dam up to supply water and power for the paper mills. In the 1950s and '60s, the paper industry used PCBs for a process that's now obsolete, but the damage they wrought still haunts: there are PCBs in the Fox River, from Appleton downstream to well into Green Bay.

Here's the good news: they are getting cleaned up, slowly but surely, and that clean-up got a boost recently when a federal judge ruled that companies only very distantly responsible for dumping PCBs in the Fox River are NOT repsonsible for paying to clean them up. The two companies that WERE largely responsible -- Appleton Papers Inc. and NCR Corp. -- continue to dodge their responsibility, and may appeal the judge's decision.'

There are a lot of people unhappy with the progress on the PCB clean-up on the Fox, as well they should; it has been long, expensive, contentious and arduous. But as my rat mother used to say when something bad happened to me, "It could be worse." As for PCBs in rivers, there is a "worse," and it is in New York and Connecticut.

The cover story of the December 2009 edition of Harper's magazine explains, in toxic detail, how General Electric, having dumped untold tons of PCBs in the river and in the ground surrounding their plants on the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers, have cozily colluded with state and federal regulators to pretend they're cleaning up the PCBs with a little dredging here and some monitoring over there. But those rivers, and the people using them and leaving near those plants, will have the spectre of PCBs over them for decades. GE is NOT bringing that good thing to life.

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