Polychlorinated biphenyl, a chemical used in several industrial applications, such as hydraulic fluids, plastics, oils, and electronics. PCBs have an incredibly long shelf life and can take centuries to deteriorate; they're also carcinogenic and harmful to humans and wildlife.
In Bloomington, Westinghouse used PCBs for decades in the manufacture of high-voltage capacitors. Waste products containing PCBs were dumped in quarries and landfills, and PCBs were poured directly into the city's sewer system. This was uncovered by a local reporter in 1975, sparking a controversy that went on for decades.
Westinghouse employees with exposure to PCBs started turning up with brain cancer; one had the highest PCB level in his blood ever measured in history, at 3450 PPM (with below 20 PPM considered safe.) Westinghouse closed operations in the city in 1977, leaving behind eight EPA superfund sites.
Around 1984, the political situation came to a head because all of the involved parties (the city, the EPA, Westinghouse), signed a consent decree agreeing that Westinghouse would build an incinerator to burn excavated PCBs along with other garbage and then store the ashes in a new landfill. Many residents were infuriated over the idea of having toxic waste ashes floating in the air, but even with thousands of signatures against it, the plan was voted in and approved.
The incinerator was fought furiously, largely by a group called COPA (Citizens Opposed to PCB Ash) and this stalled the plans for nearly a decade. In 1994, the state introduced incineration laws that would prevent the project from continuing, so the cleanup plan focused on locally landfilling some PCBs, and shipping others to places where they would be landfilled or burnt.
Over two million pounds of PCBs were dumped in Monroe County, and as of 2006, the cleanup still continues. The COPA web site contains a great amount of documentation on the controversey and cleanup.
- COPA Citizens Opposed to PCB Ash