What Gets Buried in a Small Town: The Toxic Legacy of PCBs in Bloomington
Other than serving as the home of small-town champion and rock superstar John Mellencamp and the flagship campus of Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, probably is best known in the national imagination as the location of the 1979 Academy Award-winning film “Breaking Away.” Dramatizing the common pattern of a town-gown divide, the film depicts two distinct ways of living in a small U.S. city. That rivalry is significant, but it obscures another historical pattern about class and mobility: the town-company divide. That is, there is also a profound cultural tension in U.S. cities like Bloomington between the corporations that build plants and provide jobs, on the one hand, and the residents and workers who live near the plants or are employed by them, on the other hand. Such histories both involve and exceed what environmental justice advocates call “job blackmail,” where people are asked to choose between a healthy life and a way to make a living.
Though e-waste is now a commonplace term, the garbage dilemmas of e-waste have existed since the founding of electronic media technologies. From the 1950s through the 1970s, a major source of employment in Bloomington and the surrounding county of Monroe was provided by electronic industries. Westinghouse Electric Corporation located a factory in Bloomington during this time to manufacture electric capacitors; for insulating material, it used a mixture called Inerteen, which was a commercial name for toxins called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In a three-year ban initiated in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act outlawed the commercial manufacture, sale, and distribution of PCBs in the United States. For over two decades prior to that, however, corporations produced these toxins in unsafe working conditions and dumped their e-waste throughout the area.
In Bloomington, a city I called home for over a decade, a complicated history of toxic e-waste pollution and democratic friction continues to unfold as a result of these practices — a tale of rurality and pollution indicative of broader geographical trends of U.S. histories of waste. The text that follows, excerpted from the volume “Histories of the Dustheap,” provides a history spanning over seven decades of PCB waste in the city. For the sake of clarity, I have organized this story into two main periods: (1) the invention, production, and distribution of PCBs, and the democratic frictions created between everyday people exposed to PCBs, and (2) the corporations they wished to hold accountable. Bloomington’s PCB history provides us with an occasion to revisit conceptual assumptions about U.S. culture, rurality, and technology as well as how people who work and live in these spaces are not just conceptually but also literally transformed by toxics. Paying heed to this tale may reveal some of the ways the dustbin of history is becoming corroded, and leaking into places and bodies living in the present.
The Birth of a Toxin, 1929–1970
Although the majority of the U.S. population no longer lives in rural America, and cities remain more central to our popular imaginary, rural America stubbornly continues to be a significant and indispensable facet of U.S. life. Urban America needs rural America for more than mythological roots perpetuated by pop songs and films. Bloomington, for instance, provides agriculture for food, limestone for building, and electronic technologies for, among other things, amusement and communication. As such, bringing small towns into our discussions about garbage can help us reconceptualize rural and urban boundaries, making us more accountable to the ways that public culture is, at least in part, constituted by moments of friction between the two, rather than as a one-way trajectory in which natural resources are mined and produced in rural areas, and then consumed in urban ones. As opposed to imagining such relations as unimpeded “flows,” anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us that “friction inflects historical trajectories, enabling, excluding, and particularizing.”
An example of the friction between rural and urban areas can be witnessed in the U.S. history of PCBs. PCBs were invented as a way to reuse the industrial waste that is produced as a result of technologies that enable travel and commercial links between rural and urban places. At the start of the 20th century, with the creation of assembly-line-produced automobiles, the demand for petroleum rose. When gasoline is extracted from crude oil, leftover chemicals or “by-products” are made as well. To discover if any of these by-products could be reused, companies began funding research. This initiative led to the invention of PCBs, which are the result of combining benzene, chlorine, and several other components (209 in total). In 1929, PCBs were manufactured by the Swan Corporation, which later became part of Monsanto Chemical Company, which then licensed the product to other companies under trade names such as Aroclor and the aforementioned Inerteen. PCBs are stable, insoluble compounds that conduct electricity but not heat, and could be used as insulators in electric transformers and capacitors as well as for other purposes. When conceived, PCBs were considered an exciting invention. Monsanto produced more than a billion pounds of PCBs in the United States between the 1930s and the 1970s.
During this period of popularity, writes investigative reporter Eric Francis, “scientific knowledge about the dangers of PCBs has advanced along two tracks, one private and one public.” As early as 1936, skin disease and death due to severe liver failure occurred among workers at the Halowax Corporation in New York City; Halowax funded a study in 1937 that confirmed the systemic impacts of PCB exposure. Another 1938 study documented similar results with PCBs manufactured by Westinghouse and General Electric (GE). Monsanto also had a 1947 scientific finding that it should “give warning” because “the toxicity of those compounds has been repeatedly demonstrated.” Yet none of these privately funded studies were publicized, and workers continued to be reassured that there was no risk of working with this compound. For example, although General Electric accumulated 43 references about the health risks of PCBs by at least 1956, a 1950 General Electric instruction manual for workers assured them that it “may be handled in the same manner as mineral oil,” writes Steven Higgs, a former environmental journalist who published several important stories on PCBs throughout the late 80s and early 90s in The Herald-Times.
Since only the virtues of PCBs were touted publicly at the plants and in the communities where they were being produced, distributed, and used, the compound was not perceived as a threat. Bloomington was no exception. In the early 20th century, Bloomington exemplified middle America. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Bloomington literally was the center of the U.S. population. From 1890 to 1940, the center remained in the state of Indiana, until changes in population shifted the mean southwest. Bloomington remained quite small in 1950. According to the 1950 U.S. Census, the total population in dwelling units was only 21,021 people. The vast majority of those people were “white,” with less than 200 “negroes” counted, and no other ethnicities were registered, according to a 1953 report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Although Bloomington was not large enough for the U.S. Census to record income levels, the median income in 1949 for the state of Indiana was $2,116 per year. Thus, despite the fact that Bloomington is not racially or ethnically reflective of broader polluting patterns shaped by environmental racism, it is economically and geographically reflective of historical patterns of environmental classism and rural marginalization.
Bloomington reflected the times in the 20th century, growing to include improved infrastructure, transportation, and medical facilities. historically has been Bloomington’s best-known industry, providing materials for homes throughout the Midwest as well as urban iconic U.S. structures such as the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, and the 2009 Yankee Stadium. Responding to demands of the Industrial Revolution, the electronic industry also grew in Bloomington during the 20th century. In the 1940s in Bloomington, RCA began producing radios and then, after World War II, televisions.
General Electric and Westinghouse Electric Corporation soon followed by building plants of their own. Founded in 1886 as the Westinghouse Electric Company, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Westinghouse) opened a plant in Bloomington in 1957. During its operation, it trucked approximately 39 million pounds of PCBs from Monsanto into Bloomington. In 1989, Westinghouse sold the Bloomington plant to Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), a Swiss-based company, which kept it open until 2000.
Although the plant did not open until 1957, the groundbreaking ceremony for the Westinghouse Bloomington plant occurred on Saturday, September 15, 1956, as part of the Monroe County Fall Festival. The 277,000-square-foot plant was built on a 113-acre tract three miles northwest of the city, and boasted of “the most modern and efficient equipment attainable.” No mention of PCBs or Inerteen was made in the local newspaper. Westinghouse did promise that although technicians and engineers from out of town would fill approximately 100 jobs at the plant, 350 additional jobs would be available for local people and would involve on-the-job training. The jobs were warmly welcomed, and for over a decade, Westinghouse seemed like any other large corporation that provided much-needed jobs and skills training. Slowly, however, the company’s toll on the community began to show as well.
“New Symbols of Possibility,” 1971–2008
By 1971, PCBs were detected everywhere, in everything from Arctic birds to the breast milk of women in California. Through various global studies, a scientific consensus quickly emerged that PCBs were ubiquitous, persistent, and dangerous to human health as well as broader ecosystems. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PCBs have been linked to the following health complications: skin conditions (such as acne and rashes); liver, stomach, and thyroid gland damage; anemia; compromised immune systems; behavioral alterations (such as problems with motor skills and a decrease in short-term memory); impaired reproduction; and cancer. More recent studies have indicated that people who consume PCB-tainted food can pass on the chemical for six generations. Growing scientific evidence of the risks of PCBs led to a change in federal policy, which in turn led to renegotiations of culture and power throughout the United States, including in Bloomington.
In 1976, Russel E. Train, then EPA chief, launched a national campaign to eliminate PCBs. This federal effort was galvanized by a series of events. Notably, at an EPA conference on PCB dangers in Chicago the year before, the Bloomington city chemist attended and returned home to start local investigations. High levels of PCBs were detected in the Bloomington sewer system and the fish downstream from the Westinghouse Bloomington plant, which led to the warning not to eat locally caught fish and additional investigations. Contamination from the Westinghouse plant occurred through use on-site and the local dumping of PCB-laced materials, but also through the free distribution of PCB-laced sludge to farmers and gardeners for fertilizer, which was, according to a 1976 article published in Businessweek, “the primary means of disposing of sludge in the Bloomington area.” Once in the broader ecosystem, PCBs spread into the food supply through fish, crops, the sewage system, and livestock. One family drank milk from a cow that was found to have been exposed to double the maximum PCBs levels allowed by law, another article reported. Studies found that Bloomington had “the nation’s largest volume of PCBs — 650,000 cubic yards of landfill soil.” As I elaborate below, occupational exposure for some people was also extreme.
When asked why 150 residents in Bloomington were being given blood tests for PCBs in 1984, Greg Steele, a chronic disease epidemiologist with the State Board of Health, claimed the ubiquitous exposure has had a profound impact on community health:
Bloomington is an excellent community to study because the residents have been exposed to so many routes. Those who will be tested include people who have eaten contaminated fish, tainted game, have scavenged metal from capacitors, played in or around dumps containing PCBs, swam in contaminated quarries or were exposed occupationally.
Notably, Monroe County also has what is called “karst topography,” in which limestone quarries have been bountiful due to sinkholes, fissures, and underground streams. It was common practice before regulations changed for companies and residents to dump waste in these sinkholes as well as along roads, in woods, or into waterways. The karst topography makes PCB cleanup more challenging because there is no way to follow all the intricate underground paths that this toxic waste has followed. In this sense, the geographic topography provides a subterranean mystery to this history, much like the ways that tracing the sources of and interactions between toxins in human bodies often continue to test science’s capacity to establish cause-and-effect relationships. Undetectable by the naked human eye, PCBs travel routes inside and outside our bodies by taking hold in spaces that our imaginations still cannot follow with ease.
Bloomington’s PCB history follows a pattern that Michael R. Reich, a public health policy expert, has identified after studying three toxic global disasters. According to his research, communities that have experienced toxic disasters tend to move their understandings of environmental pollutants from a nonissue (that is, when no one believes there is anything wrong) to a public issue (when people begin to share stories and express concern) to a political issue (when a collective forms to gain redress). Reich also argues that while communities that have experienced toxic disasters attempt to publicize the surrounding controversy following this pattern of increased social awareness and mobilization, institutions that have been responsible for the pollution try to privatize the surrounding controversy to limit awareness and accountability.
To recover the costs of cleanup already incurred and predicted for the future, the City of Bloomington pursued Monsanto in court for seven years, from 1981 until 1988. During this time, Monsanto made two primary arguments. First, it claimed that the benefits of PCBs outweighed the risks, which it downplayed. As Michael Fruehwald, an attorney representing Monsanto alleged: “There’s no question there are toxic effects to PCBs. But the benefits of PCBs were so great, and the toxic effects of PCBs were so controlled that it . . . would have been irresponsible for Monsanto to stop selling PCBs before it did.” The second argument followed one that was successfully used by contemporary gun manufacturers — namely, that the production of guns is not the cause of gun violence; the people who purchase guns are. The court agreed that in the case of PCBs, liability should not be found for “merely manufacturing dangerous products” but instead in the use; since it was Westinghouse that used the product, the courts absolved Monsanto of all liability for the environmental pollution from the Westinghouse Bloomington plant, claiming it was “unwilling to extend the doctrine of strict liability for an abnormally dangerous activity to the party whose activity did not cause the injury.”
“Friction,” as Anna Tsing points out, “is not a synonym for resistance. Hegemony is made as well as unmade with friction.” Noting the roles of dominant cultural institutions in this process, Reich has found that polluting institutions tend to privatize toxic pollution controversies through strategies of dissociation, confrontation, and diversion. Whereas Monsanto successfully dissociated itself from polluting the area and diverted attention to all the good it provided to the community, Westinghouse was forced to confront the federal and local governments’ calls for accountability, and so was unsuccessful in privatizing.
In 1983, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a civil action against Westinghouse over two of the sites most contaminated with PCBs, Neal’s Landfill and Neal’s Dump, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (often called “Superfund”). Then the City of Bloomington sued over two additional sites. The courts consolidated these two cases and added two more sites for a total of six. In 1985, a legal settlement called a “consent decree” was reached between the state of Indiana, Monroe County, and the City of Bloomington with Westinghouse in order to clean up these six sites of PCB contamination, costing between 75 and 100 million dollars. At the time, EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas announced: “Resolution of this enforcement case represents the largest hazardous waste settlement in the history of the agency. It is a comprehensive agreement, which provides for the ultimate destruction of the PCB wastes, rather than for long-term landfilling.” The plan was for Westinghouse to construct an incinerator south of the city, and over 15 years, remove, transport, and incinerate the 650,000 cubic yards of contaminated waste.
Many expressed concern that the six sites did not adequately cover the contamination. Eventually, the EPA studied 189 suspected PCB sites to potentially be added to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Inventory System list. Part of the challenge of testing further, however, was that private property owners needed to consent to it, and many did not want the stigma and financial devaluation of their property if they were officially declared a PCB-contaminated site.
After the announcement of the consent decree, many local residents also raised concerns about inadequate health monitoring and cleanup as well as how Westinghouse could profit from the incinerator contract. Some expressed mistrust of Westinghouse. “Westinghouse has polluted Bloomington with more PCBs than any place in the country,” resident Mike Baker told longtime Herald-Times reporter Jackie Sheckler in 1990. “I really don’t believe we can trust them to build an experimental incinerator.” This distrust of polluting corporations is common for the most severely impacted communities, and is part of why appeals to public decision-making processes, judicial forums, and elected representatives become salient. When communities cannot trust the “experts” (who often calculated that the benefits to residential/worker lives could outweigh the risks), insisting on more democratic practices becomes a means to account for costs beyond the economic bottom line.
In addition to concerns that a Westinghouse-run incinerator therefore was not the healthiest or safest solution for the community, many residents were infuriated that their voices were left out of what they believed should have been a more democratic decision-making process. It was not until 1988 that Bloomington residents (including attorney David Schalk and city chemist Ron Smith) successfully sued the federal government to obtain copies of the federal court documents that led to the consent decree agreement. Monroe County also endorsed hiring a Boston-based company to consult with the local board of health on the incinerator permit. When the City of Bloomington hired a Washington, DC, firm to assess the incinerator, they found that Westinghouse had failed to consider all the possible public health risks (for instance, it ignored the impact on local farming families that raise their own food) as well as the quantity of PCBs in the emissions that may be produced. This led the city to sue Westinghouse. The plans to build the incinerator were delayed as a result of this public opposition, showing the local community that in this case, their voices could sway legal and political representatives.
Democratic resistance from local citizens continued throughout the next decade in Bloomington in response to the consent decree. Although many of the landmark decisions were settled in the courts, public pressure on political officials to pursue these cases occurred during public hearings, in grassroots meetings, and through marches (some of which resulted in arrests). In 1976, Jon Canada and others formed the first related grassroots group called Citizens Concerned about PCBs; it dissolved relatively quickly, though, once residents believed the government was addressing the problem. The proposed incinerator changed that impression, mobilizing the grassroots community rapidly. A petition drive against the incinerator resulted in more names than had voted for Bloomington’s mayor in 1983. By 1984, Canada, Schalk, Mick Harrison, Marc Haggerty, Mike Andrews, and about 10 others formed the Toxic Waste Information Network to nationally publicize their opposition to the proposed incinerator.
In 1987, resident Margo Blackwell co-founded PATI, People Against The Incinerator. One of their most significant events took place on Sunday, April 16, 1989, when Blackwell organized a march with Greenpeace to raise awareness about their concerns. Over 500 people participated. In 1990, Greenpeace highlighted Blackwell and other Bloomington activists from this PATI event in a VH-1 public service announcement. With narration from actor Alec Baldwin, the two-minute segment aimed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day by encouraging citizens to become more involved in democratic environmental struggles. The tagline was “ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE DOING EXTRAORDINARY THINGS.” Blackwell reinforced this message: “I thought it was time that somebody should basically take the bull by the horns and say, ‘No, this is not right, and we’re not going to let you do it.’” Fellow resident and activist Patti Cummings did the same, emphasizing that “you can’t wait for anybody else to do it. You have to do it yourself. And if you don’t do it yourself, it very likely will not get done.”
One common response by institutions under scrutiny for toxic pollution is to discredit the victims. For example, some stereotyped early protesters in Bloomington as “radical hippies” — a rhetorical move that attempts to marginalize and trivialize the critiques being performed. This strategy did not always work, as one county commissioner remarked to another at the time: “What he is saying is right, even if his hair is too long.” To continue to mobilize resistance, residents picketed, sang protest songs, and set up a display of PCB-soaked items at the local library (which caused the shut down of the library for a week for detoxification). As David McCrea, a local attorney, commented about his decision to bring PCB-contaminated materials to the mayor’s office, he wanted to make the contaminants more present to those who didn’t live on the west side of town: “I didn’t do it like a prank. I wanted her to see what one looked like and smelled like. I wanted to impress upon her that there was a problem that anyone could see and that should be cleaned up.”
Starting in 1989, this more marginal and radical group grew once news spread not only of a proposed incinerator but also of a local landfill for the incinerator ash. As Westinghouse spokesperson Kit Newton recalled:
I think there was sort of a dull roar of opposition before that, but once we announced the landfill (on Dec. 6, 1990), I think the project became real to more people. I think the opposition today has more credibility than it did before. People are sincere and have legitimate concerns. And I have no doubts whatsoever that this will be the most closely watched and regulated incinerator in the United States.
The landfill led to the formation of the Coalition Opposed to PCB Ash in Monroe County (COPA), led by President Mike Baker. In addition to organizing public forums, the group produced a newsletter (which had a mailing list of 2,000 at one point), television ads, T-shirts, stickers, and buttons. Blackwell commented: “I say ‘Thank God for COPA.’ Some mainstream people have been behind the opposition for a long long time, but COPA has made it acceptable to be against the incinerator.” One resident and vice president of COPA, Jim Shea, announced: “I’ve been labeled an anti-incinerator activist but I don’t feel like an activist. I just feel like an ordinary citizen who has looked at this plan and found it doesn’t make any sense.”
It took Westinghouse four years to propose an actual plan to build an incinerator. During the subsequent 60-day comment period, public opposition continued. On November 21, 1989, the EPA inaugurated a Bloomington Community Advisory Committee to enable citizens to have a greater voice in the decision-making process.
In 1991, the Indiana state legislature introduced a bill that then-governor Evan Bayh signed into law requiring the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to seek a safer alternative to incineration and the local county to include such a provision in its solid waste management plan. In 1994, after almost a decade of intense grassroots and political pressure, Westinghouse finally put its plans to build an incinerator on hold as it sought alternatives.
Eventually, Westinghouse, the EPA, and local officials agreed on a combination of on-site remediation and shipping contaminated soils to other states. Westinghouse began cleanup at the end of August 1997, over 20 years after the PCB contamination was initially discovered.
Even when workers are residents of a community, the rhetorical constraints on their ability to mobilize democratic decision-making processes differ. On the one hand, workers frequently have increased knowledge of what is happening at an industrial facility, particularly in terms of the names of specific toxins involved, their uses, and the ways they are disposed. On the other hand, worker frictions pose the risk of larger conflagrations, because they often face greater pressure to stay silent about concerns unless they want to risk losing their jobs. Friction, in this context, can be harder to engage constructively, even if the impacts are corporeally more apparent.
Reflecting national trends, even when workers at the Westinghouse Bloomington plant asked questions, they were adamantly reassured that PCBs posed no risk to their health. For example, in 1968, when news that 1,300 residents of Kyushu, Japan, had become ill with lesions, ailments, birth defects, and other public health problems from eating PCB-contaminated rice oil made global headlines, Bloomington workers wondered if there was a connection between those exposures and their own. To ease potential tensions, the plant manager at the time, Donald M. Sauter, “dipped his hands” into PCBs at an employee meeting to persuade workers that there was no reason to be concerned. While this bravado might have been the public face of the company, Westinghouse followed the historical pattern of privatizing potential conflicts while funding a 1972 study that identified massive contamination in the Bloomington area; the company, unfortunately, never shared the results with workers, residents, or the local government.
When national events and local controversy eventually exposed this corporate culture of secrecy, Westinghouse discouraged workers from joining the local environmentalists and anti-PCB protesters through what environmental justice advocates call “economic blackmail.” According to one employee, Mont Toon, “They would tell the people in the plant that the ‘radicals’ were trying to run us out of town and that we’d all be out of jobs. They told us that if we didn’t go out and talk at town meetings about how it wouldn’t hurt you, we’d lose our jobs.”
Workers’ attitudes about PCBs usually depended on their exposure and health. Of the approximately 3,588 people who worked at the Bloomington plant from 1957 to 1977, some say they never were exposed and tend to think the issue has been overblown. Some did not take the concerns seriously until the latent exposure impacted them. Others have spent decades struggling with health issues related to their direct exposure through skin absorption and inhalation.
Ralph Evans’s job, for instance, began after other workers had gone home, when he washed the remaining Inerteen down the floor drains of the plant. After working at the plant from 1965 to 1981, he retired on medical disability at 38 years old. Evans has suffered a variety of health problems, including a bone disease, a blistered esophagus, tumors on his tonsils and gallbladder, adhesions on his intestines, brain lesions, and more. For decades, he was frustrated by Westinghouse’s denial of responsibility: “As long as Westinghouse says it won’t hurt you, no one will ever get any help. That burns me up, but what can you do? They don’t want to hear about it and they don’t want anything to do with you,” he told Herald-Times reporter Laura Lane. “We’re left here to deal with it. There’s no end to it.”
Jason Morrow worked at the plant from 1965 to 1978, but made it only three months on the Inerteen line, where he worked directly with PCBs by filling capacitors with Inerteen and soldering them shut. At the time, he broke out in a rash on his exposed body parts (his hands, arms, and face) and said that the protective goggles were not adequate for his burning eyes. Morrow knew something was wrong when the fluid managed to eat through the laces on his boots: “I had combat boots from the service. They were leather boots and it would eat through the threads and they’d fall to pieces.” The boots were exposed because Inerteen spills were common, covering the floor. Some workers recall that the floors were covered with sawdust in an attempt to soak up the slick, greasy liquid. According to another worker, Gilbert “Gib” Prow, “A pair of shoes would last about three months. They’d get as hard as a bone and curl up at the toes.” Once his complaints were heard, Morrow transferred to another section of the plant, but as a union representative, he continued to advocate for better protection for those on the Inerteen line. Transferring employees to a different part of the plant after health complaints became a pattern of institutional diversion and deflection regarding worker concerns.
Rick Sluder, former chief union steward, recalled perhaps the most extreme exposure and related health impacts:
I used to come home from work every night soaked with PCBs, saturated right down to my underwear. Now I think I’m paying for all those years when I worked on the Inerteen line at Westinghouse. That Inerteen line was a nightmare. You’d get it in your eyes, your hair and ears and nose and you could never wash the smell off you. The old PCB oil would stink up the dryers at the laundromat so bad that they asked me and my wife to stop coming there. My feet would blister and bleed, my toes would swell like big pancakes. And my skin got so it wouldn’t heal right. I had like big scars around my waist where my belt and pants were.
In addition to the immediate health complications that became apparent, Sluder had long-term health impacts, including impaired memory, inflammation and pain throughout his body, a tumor in his right forearm, and headaches — all by the age of 40. Sluder found out that he had PCBs in his blood after being part of a 1977 study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety of Westinghouse workers. He was told four years later that he had a PCB concentration of 3,450 parts per billion in his blood — the highest level of PCB contamination of a human recorded in the world. The only advice he was given on notification of the results was not to donate blood to others, and not to be buried in a regular cemetery because his body was so toxic that it would need to be placed in a hazardous waste landfill. In this extreme case of legal dehumanization, Sluder’s body was literally transformed by the standards of U.S. law from that of a human being to toxic waste. Such a traumatic transformation seems notably lost for those who have not heard of Bloomington’s PCB legacy.
Once seemingly undeniable risks began to surface through the bodies of workers, Westinghouse eventually did upgrade working conditions to make the job relatively safer. Morrow explained that “they made attempts to improve the job. They took precautions. They furnished boots, so that the Inerteen wouldn’t eat your shoes off, and plastic coveralls and coats. Then they put in showers a few feet from the line to rinse off.” Despite these precautions, Inerteen continued to be used. To discredit the victims of its hazardous practices once again, the company also was quick to point out other potential causes for health complications, such as smoking cigarettes or sun exposure.
Although the courts found Monsanto not liable for polluting the area, workers from the Westinghouse plant have had somewhat more success in suing Monsanto for inadequate warning to those working with PCBs at the Westinghouse plant. In contrast to the environmentally based cases noted previously, workers focused on Monsanto instead of Westinghouse because federal law finds the manufacturer liable, not the purchaser. Beginning in 1986, a national civil action was filed with 50 workers from Bloomington, Muncie (Indiana), and Cincinnati (Ohio), but the court separated the cases. Choosing not to focus on the cancer cases since they tend to be more controversial, lawyers for the Bloomington workers concentrated on a lack of adequate warning about the hazards and variety of other PCB-related health issues, including neurological disorders, arthritis, head pains, and rashes. During the fourth week of the trial and just days before the jury was to decide, in November 1991, eight Bloomington workers won an out-of-court settlement with Monsanto, and the checks arrived in February 1992. Although part of the agreement was nondisclosure regarding the terms and Monsanto continued to claim this settlement was not a confession of liability, the workers involved considered it a democratic victory. According to one of the workers, Albert Fritch, “Winning against them was as much a moral type thing as anything. Just winning was enough satisfaction for me.” David Baugh, another worker, agreed that bringing legitimacy to public discourse about PCBs was the primary goal: “The monetary part of it wasn’t the important part. I don’t think anybody was in it for the money. It was bringing attention to the world about the effect of these chemicals.”
In addition to some workers standing up for themselves as individuals at the plant and in the courts, the union continued to work to improve safety precautions, lobby for more health studies and accountability, and publicize education about the impacts of PCBs. As late as 1993, many workers remained afraid of being labeled an agitator; therefore, to increase democratic participation, the union began to request that public meetings about the cleanup process be videotaped and broadcast on the local cable station so workers could watch from home.
Despite some small victories for a handful of workers, concern about the risks of being associated with democratic resistance was understandable. Doctors with expertise in PCBs have never visited workers in Bloomington to explain the blood tests taken in 1977 or discuss how workers can mitigate the impacts, if at all. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Westinghouse, and Monsanto publicly continue to disavow a need for employees to be given special status. They argue that since PCBs have become ubiquitous, workers have not been necessarily more impacted, and further, that additional practices unrelated to work could be equally accountable. A study released in 1992 by Indiana state epidemiologist Gregory Steele did indeed find that the general population nationwide averaged between 7 to 10 parts per billion of PCBs, and workers fell within this range, with 7.8 for females and 8.1 for males. Those levels dramatically increased to 80 parts per billion for people who scavenged PCB capacitors or ate high quantities of local fish.
Yet Steele’s study also revealed that people who worked in the production area at the Westinghouse plant had an average of 800 parts per billion, and those who worked in the oven area of the plant reached 1,800 parts per billion. Thus, while NIOSH, Westinghouse, and Monsanto seem to be partially correct in their stance (that is, that PCBs are ubiquitous, and everyday activities can change one’s exposure), their continued denial that worker exposure is not necessarily exceptional seems unfounded.
Conclusion: The Rural Fact and Technological Myth
Some might say that the story of PCBs in the United States ended in 1976 when their commercial manufacture, sale, and distribution generally was outlawed. But what to do with the PCBs already created (and PCB use not covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act) remains a dilemma globally. The life cycle of a persistent organic pollutant like PCB is not a simple story of birth and death. “These poisons are now ubiquitous, and are especially concentrated in the flesh of predators. Potentially dangerous levels of PCBs can be found in the fatty tissues of seals, whales, eagles, many fish, and virtually every human on earth,” writes Eric Francis. Following national and international trends, the PCB pollution in Bloomington transformed from an invisible, innocuous substance into a visible, dangerous presence.
Although much of Bloomington’s PCBs have been remediated and the city’s demographics have changed, toxic e-waste has been transported and burned in incinerators located in other communities, and PCBs persistently circulate through and remain in the bodies of people exposed as well as the fish, birds, and other wildlife that live in the polluted waters that flow in and out of the complicated karst topography. Monsanto and Westinghouse spent decades hiding studies they had conducted while reassuring the public that the benefits of PCBs outweighed any concerns. Once residents obtained news of the dangers of PCBs, a slow but steadily growing number demanded their right to know more information about their exposure and participate in the decision-making process about what to do with the e-waste. Mobilizing a democratic response to toxic waste has taken decades and a multipronged approach, including protests, hearings, court cases, legislation, and worker resistance. In instances of back-and-forth negotiations, friction is an apt metaphor — uneven, not always verbalized, but eventually creating burning questions that get addressed in productive, if not always desirable, ways.
The PCB story in Bloomington remains compelling in its specificity; yet, it also serves as a representative anecdote for the impact of modern industrial and chemical revolutions on the U.S. landscape. Bloomington’s role in the national production of limestone, electronics, and PCBs goads us to recognize that this story is not about some small town that has no bearing elsewhere. The circulation of resources, technologies, and pollution exceeds municipal boundaries along with culturally constructed borders between the rural and urban. Although the U.S. population has shifted to urban centers, we must be careful not to dismiss rural life as something that no longer matters except in our social imaginaries. Doing so risks a fragmentary conception of our interconnectedness by forgetting the ways that urban U.S. life is predicated on and intertwined with rural U.S. life, and vice versa.
In addition, this history provokes us to reexamine the myth that technology will save us not only from the limits of rural life but also from the limits of technology itself. Leo Marx once argued in his landmark “The Machine in the Garden” that the 20th-century US condition was defined by the contradiction of “the rural myth and the technological fact.” This observation referenced the significance of the pastoral ideal in the U.S. public culture — born of a time when the majority of European colonizers lived in rural areas, but also of a long-gone culture, since the majority of the population has since moved to create urban centers. In his analysis of how the rural become an ideology, Marx turned to legendary U.S. writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Samuel Hopkins Adams to indicate the contradictory condition of America’s belief in technological progress. Indeed, “no trace of untouched nature remains,” and “until we confront the unalterable, . . . there can be no redemption from a system that makes men [sic] the tools of their tools.” Marx contends that the symbols of possibility we need to challenge a condition of our own making must come from politics.
Yet even if Marx’s abstract assertion was a useful diagnosis of a historical condition, the history of Bloomington’s PCBs reflect the fact that the technological has continued to permeate more of our everyday lives than ever before, and in ways that aren’t always anticipated or desirable. This story also reveals that U.S. culture is indebted to the myth that technology will save us from technology. Afraid to admit limits to what should count as technological progress or unwilling to believe that humans are capable of creating technologies for which we have no cure, this chapter shows how the fantasy of technology’s unambiguous promise played a pivotal role in Westinghouse and Monsanto perpetuating toxic pollution along with their reticence to clean it up. Moreover, as bodies that have experienced extreme exposure transform from the biological to the technological by current legal standards, the agency of humans to counter the technological myth seems all the more precarious. As such, through this account of Bloomington’s history with PCBs, I hope to have demonstrated that the reverse of Marx’s argument is true today: We must also be attentive to the rural fact and technological myth produced by various moments of democratic friction.
Bloomington, of course, has needed technology to remove and detoxify what PCBs could be located in its terrain, but remediation technology still cannot match the complexity of the karst topography or human body — each of which involves subterranean geographies that the best of our experts have yet to fully map or comprehend. Despite the importance of technology to the history and future of the United States, the myth of technology seems as significant as the fact. Further, as more people are exposed to greater amounts of toxics, the extraordinary tragedy of what happened to Sluder may become as ordinary as the broader inequitable patterns of e-waste, toxic pollution, and everyday people that Bloomington illustrates. Given this, we would do well to continue to investigate the ways certain places and people are marginalized as garbage, both metaphorically and materially.
Bloomington’s PCB history is therefore revealing to those of us invested in studying frictions between goods, people, places, and toxics. The United States is long overdue for toxic legislation reform that can better account for the quantity and wide variety of toxic chemicals that have become a part of our everyday lives. [Author’s update: On June 22, 2016, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act) was signed into law. Budgeting and enforcement remains a struggle.] In considering what we should do to bring about a more sustainable future, we would do well to learn from this 20th-century tale of a small town’s frictional history of toxic waste and resistance as well as continue to foster conversations on how we can better account for the spatial and cultural politics of the garbage we create and may be becoming.
Phaedra C. Pezzullo is a professor of environmental communication and cultural studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the author of “Toxic Tourism” (University of Alabama Press). She has a forthcoming book this year (2023) with University of California Press on plastics, “Beyond Strawmen.” This article is excerpted from “Histories of the Dustheap,” a collection of essays coedited by Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini.