Environmentalists meet on PCBs
Congress begins today at Fairfield U.

Approximately 100 environmental activists will take part in the first PCB Congress today and Thursday at Fairfield University.

The delegates, representing dozens of community groups from as far away as Alaska and Seattle, plan to work on a white paper focusing on health issues related to the dumping of PCBs. But the group is also planning a rally at the gates of Fairfield-based General Electric Co., which is now in the process of cleaning up PCB contamination in the Hudson and Housatonic rivers.

The congress, which begins at 8:30 a.m. today in the cafeteria of the Dolan School of Business, is open to the public.

The congress also brings together groups founded along the Hudson and Housatonic rivers, both heavily contaminated. However, said one delegate, the location is more about convenience to airports and finding a site than it is about working in the backyard of GE, which has spent $700 million in recent years cleaning up PCBs.

Timothy Gray, of the Pittsfield, Mass.-based Housatonic River Initiative, came up with the idea for the congress in September, said Judy Herkimer of the Cornwall Bridge-based Housatonic Environmental Action League.

By bringing the groups together, Herkimer said, Gray hopes to gain the attention of health agencies and put pressure on polluting companies. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified PCBs, a byproduct of some manufacturing, as a probable carcinogen and has warned against eating fish from contaminated rivers. Dr. David Brown, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, is one of the co-sponsors, said Herkimer. Brown, she said, is a former Connecticut Department of Health commissioner and issued the first advisory against consuming fish from the Housatonic River.

Dr. Lisa Newton, head of Fairfield University's environmental studies department and another co-sponsor, said the group called her and asked if she knew of a place in Fairfield they could use.

"GE in town, their corporate headquarters that was somewhat secondary, because this is not a gathering of all GE-contaminated sites," said Herkimer.

But the group does plan to travel to GE's headquarters later today, to deliver what she called a symbolic "Declaration of Independence from PCBs."

"Most of the PCBs are not cleaned up," said Herkimer, because they are not being totally destroyed. Instead, they are placed in landfills or incinerated in Texas, which she said results in further pollution. "We're just somewhat shifting them," she said.

"While they certainly have a right to their opinion it appears that we're doing what they want us to do, which is clean up these sites," said GE spokesman Gary Sheffer. "We have met every commitment we have made as part of those cleanups."

According to Sheffer, GE respects their concerns over the health issues related to PCB exposure, but "The people most exposed to PCBs, our own employees, have been tested many times" and show no greater incidence of death from cancer or any other disease.

Sheffer knew about the planned rally, and that the congress plans to present something to the company, but did not know details.

"No one has requested a meeting," said Sheffer.

Pam Dawkins, YourMoney editor, can be reached at 330-6351.