On March 8, 1973, a truck developed a leak in Kingston, Tenn., and 630 gallons of PCBs were spilled. The contaminated soils were recovered in 11,500 drums and sealed in concrete at a cost of $1.7 million. It was paid by G.E., which was shipping the chemical. Local residents also brought damage suits against G.E. and last October a judge awarded them a total of $120,000.
The U.S. Department of Defense was involved in a Catch-22 PCB episode with other government agencies in Seattle. On Friday, March 13, 1974 an electrical transformer destined for an Air Force radar station in Shemya, Alaska fell on a pier in Seattle and 265 gallons of PCBs bled into the Duwamish River. Defense refused responsibility; so did the U.S. Coast Guard, which has the primary obligation to clean up oil and other harbor spills. The Coast Guard said PCBs were not among the chemicals it was required to recover. The EPA had to hire divers who brought up 70 to 90 gallons of the compound, and in February of this year the Defense Department finally agreed to pay the cost, $148,000.
But recovery from the Duwamish spill is far from ended. EPA officials estimate 60 to 80 gallons remain in the riverbed, and Defense has assigned the job to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is scheduled to begin dredging 30,000 cubic yards of river bottom sometime around the first of the year. Estimated cost of the project is between a quarter and half a million dollars.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows up to five parts per million of PCBs in fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regards the presence of a half part per million (.5 ppm) in a fish egg as a sure sign of trouble in a waterway. According to Charles R. Walker, Senior Environmental Scientist with the Service, who delivered two papers in Chicago, trouble spots on the Atlantic Coast range from the Merrimac River in Massachusetts to the St. Johns in Florida. On the Gulf Coast afflicted rivers extend from the Rio Grande east to the Apalachicola in the Florida panhandle. The Mississippi-Missouri system has its hot spots. On the West Coast, the Sacramento, Rogue, Columbia and Snake rivers have problems and they abound in the Great Lakes region and in the St. Lawrence. Last week, Canadian officials announced they were dropping edible fish tolerance levels from 5 ppm to two ppm and might well close the eel fishery in the St. Lawrence.
Obviously, some rivers are in worse shape than others. Here are some PCB values for fish sampled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: carp, Cincinnati, Ohio River, 133 ppm; two channel catfish, Marietta, Ohio, Ohio River, 38-77 ppm; walleye pike, Natrona Heights, Pa., Allegheny River, 35 ppm; white perch, Camden, N.J., Delaware River, 19 ppm; gizzard shad, Elizabethtown, N.C, Cape Fear River, 23 ppm; small-mouth buffalo, Redwood, Miss., Yazoo River, 73 ppm; yellow perch, Lowell, Mass., Merrimac River, 98 ppm; goldfish, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Hudson River, 213 ppm.
The Fish and Wildlife Service does not sample every stream in the country—it extends itself to maintain even the 100 monitoring stations in existence—but research by other agencies reveals other trouble spots. Half the lake trout analyzed from Lake George, N. Y. have more than 5 ppm. And eggs of striped bass taken in 1972 from the Nanticoke and Chop-tank rivers on the supposedly unspoiled eastern shore of Maryland had PCB levels that ranged from 2.8 to 20 ppm.
For a number of years the Fish and Wildlife Service also has been monitoring birds. Every starling tested has contained PCBs. Examination of mallard and black duck wings show the Atlantic Flyway has the most severe problems, at least for waterfowl. The mean value for black duck wings is 1.36 ppm, while mallards averaged 1.26 ppm. The values are slightly lower for the Mississippi Flyway, and lower still for the Central and Pacific.
For all the damning data produced in Chicago, some bureaucrats acted in bizarre fashion when their turns came to speak. Walter C. Barber, director of the Standards and Regulations Evaluation Division in the EPA, said, "I don't know what we're going to do." Dr. Albert C. Kolbye, associate director for Sciences, Bureau of Foods, FDA, said, in all seriousness, "We are the straight men in a bad joke." Dr. Kolbye is the FDA official who sets the PCB tolerance levels for human foods.
The weeks ahead doubtless will reveal even more grim news about PCBs. A hearing by the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment is scheduled to start this month in Washington; and in New York, Ogden Reid continues to push his state hearing.
If there is any measure of comfort in all this, it is that Soviet bureaucrats must be more inefficient than most of ours. Just recently a delegation of. Soviet scientists visited one of the finest labs in this country. They were shown everything the lab had on PCBs and left loaded down with papers. Before returning home, they stopped at the Soviet embassy in Washington, where all the papers were taken away from them.