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Romans want answers about tainted GE plant

EPD fed up; Federal Government mulls Superfund designation

Residents of Rome have known parts of their city were contaminated with a known carcinogen since 1976. That's the year the Department of Natural Resources said fish from the Coosa River were contaminated with PCBs and shouldn't be eaten by anyone, especially children or pregnant women.

The PCBs were dumped into the river by General Electric's transformer plant. But with the plant providing 2,000 jobs, it didn't seem wise to complain too loudly.

Today, though, the jobs are gone, lost when GE closed the plant in 1997. And with the company reluctant to clean up the mess amid alarming new soil tests, area residents are organizing to determine if the contamination has spread into their bodies.

On April 19, a citizens' group will meet with Dr. Howard Frumkin, an Emory University professor, to finalize a blood testing program that will screen hundreds, maybe thousands of residents for PCBs.

"It is a very appropriate next step to do blood testing to see if PCB levels are elevated, and if so in whom and by how much," Frumkin says.

The results could feasibly be used for a class-action lawsuit against GE, or to help pre-empt any illnesses that might crop up from the exposure.

Meanwhile, GE insists the tests are needless. Says spokesman Richard Lester: "On the subject of health, the issue is clear: PCBs do not adversely affect human health."

Emory's Frumkin concedes that studies on the effects PCBs have on humans are conflicting and inconclusive. "But," he says, "there is good evidence suggesting that developmental delays or defects in intelligence are related to the presence of PCBs in developing fetuses or very young children." In animal studies, PCBs have been linked to cancer, hormonal problems and weakened immune systems.

GE used PCBs in a liquid to make electrical conductors and insulators from the plant's opening in 1953 until 1977, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs.

Recent EPA tests found the highest levels of PCBs at the West Central Elementary School and Tolbert Park, home to a neighborhood playground.

Jessica Lindberg's family lives about three miles from the plant and a block from Tolbert Park. Lindberg allowed her children — Anderson, 5, and Noah, 3 — to play on the playground there until March 19. At a public that evening, she learned of EPA tests that found PCB levels at the park were as high as 17.8 parts per million. (Areas with 1.55 parts per million and up are eligible for the state's hazardous sites list.)

Now she tells them not to go the park "because there's chemicals in the dirt."

"If the [blood] tests come back with no signs of PCBs then we can all go home [relieved]," Lindberg says. "If there are high levels, then we'll take it from there."

The local Lowe's Home Improvement store is closed because of the PCB levels. And more than 120 private residences are also suspected of being tainted, says EPD Community Involvement Coordinator Abena Ajanaku.

The homes were contaminated when GE sold barrels of a mixture containing PCBs as a termite treatment. Gardens were contaminated because GE released waste into the city sewage system, and residents were allowed to take PCB-tainted sludge home as fertilizer to help their vegetables and flowers grow.

It's not just PCBs, though. On Feb. 21, GE released a study that found dioxin, a known human carcinogen, at levels that met or exceeded federal standards in three places at the company's on-site landfill.

With chemicals like dioxins and PCBs lurking in the soil and water, the EPD is pushing the company to speed up the cleaning process.

Last December, the EPD demanded that General Electric clean up the Lowe's site and the commercial property of a local dentist. So far GE hasn't done anything at those locations, and EPD is tired of waiting.

"The sending letters time is over," says EPD's Jim Ussery, manager of the Facilities Compliance Program in the Hazardous Waste Management Branch. "We've talked with them, we've met with them, and since we do consider this to be a threat to human health, we're going to have to compel something to happen. It's now time to take some serious action."

Ussery wouldn't specify what EPD's next course of action would be, but he did say the department would act if GE didn't begin cleaning up the Lowe's and dentist sites in the "next couple of weeks."

He also says fines "don't get anything done" (GE already paid a $100,000 fine in 1998) and EPD's options include sending GE an order to clean up the site or asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.

The EPA will determine in the next few months whether the GE plant should be listed as a federal Superfund site. If that happens, it will be easier for the EPA to force GE to clean up the mess.

Lester says GE is fulfilling its responsibilities according to EPD's schedule. "The process here is very methodical. We do investigations and EPD reviews the results and may ask for more investigations. At each step we have to have their concurrence to go on to the next step."

That's a similar stance company officials take about the PCB contamination attributed to GE in the Hudson River. The EPA declared a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson a Superfund site because of PCBs that came from GE plants.

In what critics call standard procedure for GE, the company fought state and federal environmental agency recommendations to clean up that area for decades. Last December, the EPA ordered GE to spend $490 million to dredge the Hudson Superfund site. GE officials said at the time that the company would do everything in its power to avoid dredging the river.

The company's environmental policies, or lack thereof, will be put to the test here in Atlanta at GE's annual shareholder meeting, scheduled for April 25.??