My blog features many my nature discoveries while out and about in Monroe and surrounding counties. Part of my interest is our watersheds, and sad to say, some of the most beautiful are polluted by PCBs.

Those of you who have known me a while realize that I have been following the story of PCB contamination and cleanup attempts here in Bloomington for 30 years. We may be finally approaching the end of the first phase of this process. I noticed some folks are still interested in the PCB story, so I posted this spontaneous essay to WGCL’s online forum in 2009. Now there is new interest (2015), so I have placed the COPA website data on Google Drive in case someone would like to peruse the content. The index file does not link to all the data, it is probably best if you download the whole thing and search it from your computer (right click on the link as Save As).

Illinois Central Springs, 2002
Illinois Central Springs, 2002

This problem has been going on for over 30 years, and many of the original actors are dead, retired, or just tired of the whole affair. I think I need to add a few words. I’ve been involved since 1980-81 when some of us formed the Westside PCB Study Group. I was a member of PATI (People Against the Incinerator), attended all the meetings surrounding the Consent Decree, as well as over 20 years of EPA meetings.

I produced the PCB Blues album that featured 16 songs by 15 area songwriters who opposed the incinerator idea. I created the first website containing information focusing on PCBs and health in 1996, and soon merged that with COPA’s BBS information to create copa.org, which I have maintained for over a decade. I’ve digitized and uploaded hundreds of studies, proposals, lawsuits, and have more information in my head about this situation than anyone not professionally involved in the cleanup.

There could be some PCBs in Lake Monroe mud, but I doubt it is much more than any other lake in Indiana. Leon Mullis claimed (and I believe his story) that he dumped several loads of capacitors/transformers there. Now this was after they had been emptied and the copper scavenged, but they would certainly have had some PCBs on them. At one point the city cleaned and replaced a water intake valve that contained PCBs in its mechanism, but this did not get into the water. Clear Creek does not drain into Lake Monroe, so this could not be a route of contamination. So to say that all of Lake Monroe’s mud is contaminated with PCBs is just not supported by the evidence.

I know of no studies of Lake Monroe mud, and there would need to be someone to fund this. As the fish in Lake Monroe do not show contamination (from PCBs), the EPA does not consider it a problem, and will not fund it unless they do. Amazingly, the state does not list Lake Monroe as a much of a problem, only bluegill and carp are listed in the state fish advisory, and they have the lowest rating of Level 1. (This means women and children should eat no more than 1 meal/week. The Advisory also states that if a creek, lake, or fish is not listed, assume Level 2. The state advisories range from 1 to 5, Level 5 means never eat fish from these streams.)

I talked to the DNR and Indiana Dept. of Health officials at the Bedford (GM/Pleasant Run) cleanup meeting several years ago, and I just read the 2008 Indiana Fish Advisory, and their policy is clearly articulated. (Fish are good for you, eat them. If the advisories worry you, make sure clean the fat from the fish before cooking. Don’t pay any attention the man behind the curtain.) Maybe you agree with my snarky review, maybe not. You can read the Indiana Fish Advisory for yourself.

Westinghouse Plant, Bloomington, IN

The real problems in Monroe county are at Lemon Lane (Clear Creek), Neal’s Landfill (Richland Creek), and Bennett’s Dump (Stout’s Creek), not Lake Monroe. All of Clear Creek and Salt Creek below the confluence of Clear Creek is classed as Level 5 by the state, no one should ever eat fish from these creek. (Pleasant Run in Lawrence county beats them all, some of the fish there tested nearly 100 times higher than any fish in Clear Creek, our county’s most polluted waterway.) All three Monroe county sites continue to leak PCBs, and in all three cases, the PCBs are trapped in the karst beneath the sites, and are flushed out by groundwater. Clear Creek, Salt Creek and Stout’s Creek are at Level 5, no one should ever eat any fish from these creeks. Women and children should not eat fish caught in Richland Creek in Monroe county, according the 2008 Indiana Fish Advisory.

Lemon Lane is a special case as the PCB concentrations in the water increase dramatically during a storm, whereas the levels are relatively steady at Bennett’s and Neal’s Landfills during storms. The EPA (not Westinghouse, who has insisted the plant is too big and expensive) built a water treatment plant at the Illinois Central Springs (ICS), where the water from Lemon Lane emerges at the spring. It is the largest spring that I know of in the city, producing over 10,000 gallons per minute at peak flow. The ICS plant treats about 80% of the PCBs that emerge from the spring; the 20% remaining untreated bypasses the plant during large storms like we had in June 2008. The EPA has plans to build more storage and treatment capacity, but this have been on hold for years. (CBS/Viacom/Westinghouses figures if they stall long enough, enough PCBs will wash out that EPA will get off their back. In their minds, dilution is the solution.) But it is possible we will get Lemon Lane fixed. Many folks are pissed (and rightly so) that Lemon Lane did not get fully cleaned up, they left a bunch of low level contaminated material there, and covered it up. But even if it were not there (and in some other toxic waste landfill), the PCBs would continue to leak from their home in the epikarst. Water treatment will be required for many years to come, and if we treat 100% of the water, I think this is the best that can be done for now.

Neal’s Landfill is another case altogether. The volume of water is quadruple that of Lemon Lane, but the PCB concentrations in the water are much lower, even at high volume. The steady drip, drip, drip of PCBs into Richland Creek will continue for many years to come. The EPA tested fish in Conard’s Branch (of Richland Creek) , and although they were high in PCB concentrations, the fish were too small to eat (for humans) near the landfill. A mile or so downstream the PCBs in the fish are much lower, so that if you were a man and caught a big enough fish, you could safely eat one or two a month. The EPA wants Westinghouse to build a better treatment plant here, not to catch all the water, but rather to treat all the low flow. They feel this will lower the PCB levels in fish to “acceptable” levels in a couple of years. Their goal is not to capture all the PCBs, but rather to reduce the risk to humans through fish consumption. The site is underlain by a complex of caves and underground streams, and the PCBs are unrecoverable. As with Lemon Lane, they cleaned up all the trash with high levels of PCBs, but left all the low level stuff, and capped it. The theory is that the PCBs in the landfills will not leach into the karst if they are kept dry. This may or may not be entirely true, there could be water infiltration from below. I’ve no evidence one way or the other, but the theory has some logic. The problem to me is that landfills are built to last no more than 30 years. Will Viacom/CBS/Westinghouse be around to fix it then? Who will be responsible at that time, and can the EPA force them to be so?

Bennett’s Dump is still another complex situation. Unlike Lemon Lane and Neal’s Landifill, Bennett’s Dump experienced a total removal of all the trash in the site. But PCBs still leak from the karst into Stout’s Creek. The EPA has plans (once they get a final agreement with Westinghouse/CBS/Viacom) to divert water in such way as to keep it from the karst. This may involve lowering the water level in nearby quarries and digging trenches and berms.

PCBs continue to leak into the environment, they will for many years to come, and that is a real, worldwide, problem. The background levels are rising, and they are causing havoc as they concentrate in the arctic. A third or more of all the PCBs produced may still be in use (it was 50% about 10 years ago, so I am not confident about my numbers). They are persistent (unlike dioxin, they do not break down in sunlight), and like dioxin they are endocrine disruptors, and have health effects spanning generations.

Tons and tons of PCBs have been released into the environment in the 30 years I have been aware of this problem, Westinghouse/CBS/Viacom has played a delay game, I am sure their motto is still “Dilution is the Solution”. This is incredible! These are Superfund freaking sites! Westinghouse/CBS/Viacom Lemon Lane/ICS Springs is about 80% fixed, Neal’s Landfill will keep leaking till the all PCBs are gone. This is not a complete cleanup, maybe it never will be.

Here is some random stuff about PCBs.

1. PCBs are everywhere. Water, land and air. Here is a 2008 report about air from Chicago:

Carp over 25″ found in any stream in Indiana is categorized as Level 5, never eat any carp. Smaller carp are Level 4. That’s all streams in Indiana, not just those that receive landfill runoff. All streams.

Inuits in northern Quebec have some of the highest serum levels of PCBs of any humans tested (other than from occupational exposure.) They have no factories, landfills or old electric capacitors, but they are at the top of their food chain and eat a lot of fatty animal food. See #4 below to understand how the PCBs get to the Arctic.

2. PCBs are hydrophobic, they possess very low solubility in water, and they will volatilize, especially if the water is disturbed (like in a stream). Volatilization has been an issue, and the air around the ICS Treatment Plant has been tested, due to public concern. For years the EPA denied the fact of volatilization, but the science was too strong. Their position shifted to that volatilization was not an issue in the cleanup as most of the PCBs are bound to other molecules, and not in solution in the water.

3. PCBs bind to clay, silt, and mud molecules. The PCBs found in Clear Creek are almost always associated with the clay and gravel on the bottom (or distributed on the flood plain as is the case near Sophia’s property.) There may also be some volatilization from the creek but the few studies done showed only very low levels.

4. PCBs (when they volatilize) are subject to a process called global distillation. PCB use is concentrated the industrialized world, being closely associated with electric transmission lines. When they are released (by capacitors failing, pumps going bad, etc.) the PCBs rise to the upper atmosphere and are transported to the northern latitudes, and eventually condense to fall as snow, sleet or rain. The PCBs enter the food chain and end up in seals, whales, polar bears, walruses, and then humans, who are the top of the food chain, and thus have the highest concentrations of PCBs. Polar bears may soon be extinct in the wild due in large part to PCBs causing sexual dimorphism and lowered fertility. And then there is the shrinking of the ice sheets, adding trouble to trouble.

5. PCBs were originally banned due to their cancer causing properties, and I have no doubt that they can cause cancer, but I don’t think that is why they should be banned. Repeated or even occasional dermal contact can cause chloracne, a severe form of dermatitis, fatigue and numbness in the extremities. This usually occurred during occupational exposure (like at the Westinghouse plant where chloracne was common) or by accidental contamination for foodstuffs (check out all the data on the Yushu incident in Japan). The only health study done on Westinghouse workers (who worked with the fluid on them and their clothes) found a statistically significant number of brain cancers in the cohort. To me this is moot, many day to day chemicals can cause cancer, just google the ingredients in the cans of stuff under your sink. As PCBs are no longer manufactured or used commercially, the large amounts required to cause cancer just are not present day to day.

6. The clear and present danger of PCBs is that they are endocrine disruptors, resulting in immune, reproductive and neurological pathologies. PCBs mimic estrogen, this causes a multiplicity of problems for infants including low birth weight, slow growth rate, and birth defects including malformed sex organs. In utero and early life exposure to even small amounts can have profound effects, and this is why Indiana’s fish advisories are more stringent for women and children, small doses can have dramatic effects. In adults exposed via fish consumption, various studies have found PCBs can cause impaired intelligence, poor adaptability to stress, and Attention Deficit Disorder.

EPA Health Effects of PCBs
Endocrine effects of prenatal exposure to PCBs
Species-Specific Endocrine Disruption: PCB
Endocrine Disruptor relation to Food 6 PCB (Japan)

A 2005 study of birds along the highly contaminated Bailey Branch of Pleasant Run Creek in Lawrence county by Dan Sparks (USFWS) and Diane Henshall (SPEA) showed heart deformities, and a study on the Hudson River found that exposed chickadees could not sing as well as those not exposed to PCBs.

Heart Deformaties in Birds
PCB-Correlated Interspecies
Birds and PCBs
Yusho in Japan

PCBs are a problem, and the problem is increasing as more and more PCBs are released. We need to do everything we can before it is too late, but maybe it is already too late as some say is the case with global warming.

We are not responsible for this pollution, yet we are paying for it again and again, and the health of our future generations is at risk. The Viacom giant has stalled and stalled, and because the PCBs don’t appear as clear and present danger to most folks, they have been winning. What’s up with that?

One thought on “PCBs”

  1. Great stuff, Mitch! Did you see my story on PCBs in a 2009 issue of the Bloomington Alternative? I periodically flirt with the idea of writing a book about PCB activism in Bloomington. I understand that Ron Smith wrote a book but never found a publisher. Many, many thanks for keeping up with the issue. Do you know Cathy Rountree? She’s just begun learning about the issue & is very interested in it.

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