The world’s not a happy place these days but there is a temptation to think that at least some of what’s happening nationally — e.g. who gets what big job in Washington — won’t much impact your daily life. Wrong, for sure, when it comes to the air you breathe and the water you drink.
Look no further than Newburgh, New York last month.
In 2016 it was discovered that Washington Lake, a major source of water for City of Newburgh residents, was contaminated with PFOAs from nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base. These chemicals, used as fire retardants, have been linked to the proliferation of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis, among other diseases. Then just a few weeks ago, the City was again threatened by the use of a chemical foam used at the airport.
Exactly two days after the latest news of contamination, The New York Times reported that the EPA wants to downplay the risk of this class of chemical in drinking water under pressure from the Defense Department. Prior to the EPA’s revision, the agency had suggested those responsible for proliferation would need to take immediate action. But proposed revisions would let the agency drag its feet on cleanup or avoid remediation.
These events and others like them across the state and country make the Benjamin Center’s latest discussion brief, Hudson River PCBs: What the GE Clean-Up Brings to Life, by Simon Litten, more than a powerful history lesson.
Litten shows that the extraordinarily costly, time-consuming, and ultimately equivocal cleanup of PCBs from the Hudson River is at least in part the result of even well-meaning researchers fumbling for decades about how to study the impact of toxins already released into the environment. Litten says “prevention would be far better, and far cheaper than cleanup.” Put differently, the broadly applicable general lesson is that pretending a problem doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away.
While PCB contamination was still going on, Litten writes, the federal government was busily passing “…landmark Nixon-era environmental initiatives—the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1972), passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act (1972)…the Endangered Species Act (1973).” But then as now laws don’t equal actions or mean that federal officials will actually follow the intent of the law.
The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act requires the E.P.A. to re-evaluate pesticides every 15 years to see if they are causing harm to human health, the environment or endangered species. But the Trump Administration has packed its E.P.A. with former oil and gas as well as chemistry industry lobbyists. Excellent New York Times reporting found that David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and oil-industry lawyer, who in April replaced disgraced E.P.A. head Ryan Zinke, quashed a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, later leaked, that found that pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants.”
How does this connect directly to you here in the Hudson Valley and greater New York State? With the EPA backpedaling, it’s falling to New York State to ban pesticides that might harm people or endangered species. Chlorpyrifos is sprayed very widely on apples—one of the region’s chief crops. New York legislators just passed a bill on Earth Day that gives farmers until January 2022 to quit applying chlorpyrifos.
A great irony is that even as apple farmers gripe that they don’t have a safe replacement, chlorpyrifos is also harmful to honeybees—without which apple farmers cannot produce a crop.
Unlike with PCBs and their early usage and regulation, there’s a very clear understanding of the impacts of using both chlorpyrifos and malathion. And, compellingly, while both pose a grave threat to human beings, they also endanger animals like foxes, which the Cary Institute points out, are one of the animals critical to containing the spread of Lyme disease.
You can’t contain Lyme without a healthy ecosystem, and as with PCBs the closer we look at the effects of toxins, the more we see connections between them and the food chain (think: fish eaten by other animals that depend on the Hudson River ecosystem).
It took lawsuits to compel industry and state and federal agencies to enforce laws like the Clean Water Act and finally dredge PCBs from the Hudson, but as Litten makes clear, we got there with baby steps. He writes that “an immediate reaction to the awareness of the PCB problem, and to the stream of revelations of environmental toxics (mercury, lead, asbestos, vinyl chloride, cadmium, chlorinated pesticides), was the 1976 Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA).” But the TSCA was toothless. It took until 2011, 25 years later, to revise existing law and strengthen “the EPA’s authority to require companies to give greater weight to risks to ‘health and safety’ than to economic cost/benefit ratios in reporting on existing chemicals.”
Today, as the Trump administration is trying to weaken existing protections, lawsuits are again playing a role. In late April, The Center for Food Safety won its settlement against the EPA, forcing the agency to pull a class of pesticide known as neonicotinoids from the market.
These chemicals are, like chlorpyrifos and malathion, extremely harmful to honeybees.
Litten points out that a system that relies on compelling the EPA through the courts to do its job is seriously broken. Instead, he concludes that the lesson with PCBs ought to teach industry and regulators that a European style approach, “that changes the operating assumption for the regulation of potentially harmful chemicals—from safe until proven unsafe to unsafe until proven safe— offers an aspirational ideal.”
States can act, and some like New York do act. But a patchwork of state by state laws is problematic for addressing problems without geographic boundaries. It is also onerous to industry. Cleaning up PCBs was at least as burdensome for GE as for the public and governmental agencies. Making the patient sick first and then trying to save her or him is madness. If it bankrupts a company in addition to sickening people and our planet, it’s also financially destructive.
If PCB cleanup has taught us anything, Litten writes, it’s that we already know how to avoid repeating these mistakes. This is a case where national action is local action.