The newspapers from 1938 make it clear what was promised when Aerovox first came to New Bedford.
“New industry being set up in Nashawena” was one of The Standard-Times’ lead headlines. “Due to Employ 700” was the subhead.
For a city reeling from 10 years of textile mills escaping unions by fleeing to southern states, it must have seemed a great deal, even a godsend.
But even then, there were warnings. Spinner Publications’ Picture History of New Bedford describes Aerovox’s flight to New Bedford from its Brooklyn plant as coming in the wake of a prolonged strike at the latter. In hard-pressed New Bedford, then Mayor Leo E.J. Carney and Standard-Times publisher Basil Brewer had formed the Industrial Development Legion, and one of its first priorities was luring the electronic component manufacturer from New York to their city by Buzzards Bay.
It did not go down easily with everyone.
“On learning of the move, local CIO organizers leafleted, accusing Aerovox of running away from the Brooklyn union,” the Spinner history reads.
It turned out that exploitive wages were not the worst of Aerovox’s problems.
By the late 1970s, it was clear that Aerovox, along with Cornell-Dubilier (a second electronic capacitor manufacturer on the South End peninsula), had done quite a job on the New Bedford-Fairhaven Harbor. Not to mention the city’s landfills. In fact, the two companies had spilled and dumped so many dangerous PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) into the Acushnet River that the site was to become the largest Superfund (EPA cleanup) site in any harbor in the country.
Here’s what the EPA wrote in 1983 when it filed a complaint against the two companies under the Superfund cleanup law:
“Both the Aerovox and Cornell-Dubilier plants used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable human carcinogen, in the capacitors from approximately 1947 to 1978. During that period, the buildings, structures, and grounds of both plants became contaminated with PCBs from accidental spills and intentional dumping. These PCBs were transported onto the adjoining shorelines and into the Harbor through the pipes, drains, troughs, storm runoff, and intentional dumping over the years of PCB operations.”
Time changes all perspectives, of course. By the late 1970s, The Standard-Times in writing about what matters in these parts had a different focus. One of its editors, Frank D. Roylance, in a flight of poetic inspiration, described the toll environmental contamination was taking throughout the region in the words of a 17th-century English satirist named Samuel Butler: “And look before you ere you leap; For as you sow, ye are likely to reap.”
The proverb certainly turned out to be true with New Bedford and electronic capacitor manufacturers.
The story of Aerovox and Cornell Dubilier and the despoliation of New Bedford Harbor was not over yet though.
By 1992, the EPA had come to an agreement with the defendants that they would supply $100 million toward a 30-year cleanup of the harbor. That plan, which originally called for the PCBs extracted from the river to be incinerated right on the New Bedford shoreline eventually morphed into a plan to truck out the contaminated soil to Michigan.
The grassroots community group Hands Across the River’s advocacy was largely responsible for avoiding the PCB smoke along the Acushnet River. They have never received enough credit for it.
But cleaning up such extensive contamination was never going to come easy, and it continued to be a war that nearly drowned the city in a swamp of environmental lawsuits.
By 2010, the federal government agency which watches out for places like New Bedford that don’t always watch over themselves, entered into an agreement with AVX Corp., the parent company of Aerovox, to demolish its plant on Belleville Avenue. Ten years after the building came down, not much is happening at that site and it’s not clear what it could ever be used for beyond passive recreation, which the city may at least now have some plans for an open space park.
By 2012, the EPA came to a final settlement with AVX, under which the company — which had had a history of being one of the most prominent manufacturers of these components that go into radios, televisions and other electronic equipment — was to give the federal government some $366 million for the cleanup of New Bedford Harbor.
That agreement, unfortunately, absolved the company of any further responsibility for the harbor cleanup, and the city’s preeminent environmental protection organization, the Buzzards Bay Coalition, has complained bitterly about it.
“Accepting this fixed amount will lock the EPA into cleanup choices that put cost ahead of public good,” wrote the coalition on change.org. “The EPA’s settlement with AVX is the last chance for New Bedford to get what it’s waited years for: enough money to clean up the harbor forever.”
And just as the Buzzards Bay Coalition predicted, the $366 million, on top of the original $100 million, was not enough to finish the job of cleaning up New Bedford harbor of the nasty PCBs, which were used as a kind of coating on the capacitor for electric transmission purposes.
It actually has taken a 100-year pandemic, and the resulting determination of both national political parties, to finally re-invest in America’s crumbling infrastructure to accomplish that goal. The EPA’s announcement this week (at the unrelated cleanup site of the former Cannon Street Power Plant), was that there is almost $73 million now available to finish cleaning up New Bedford-Fairhaven Harbor of PCBs. Or they are at least saying that $73 million will be enough to finish the job this time.
As is the case with such occasions, every politician from local to national influence was on hand to take a bow. Fair enough. Elected officials created the EPA back in 1973 and they have funded it all these years, for both its triumphs and its disasters. And though many have their doubts about the long-term viability of this first-ever-tried burying of the PCBs in confined aquatic disposal units (CAD cells) below the Acushnet River, they have brought the project to some sort of conclusion. That is not nothing.
“This is a fantastic outcome for a community that has shouldered a disproportionate burden of pollution,” said EPA New England Regional Administrator David W. Cash.
No kidding. New Bedford, like all low-income communities, and communities of color, almost always shares the heaviest burdens of environmental catastrophe. That’s what the term environmental injustice means.
It’s been a long 40-year slog for New Bedford, during which time the city not only lost the capacitor manufacturers, but also the use of their sites, not to mention many other sites up and down the 18,000 acres in the harbor that were not easily developable because of the contamination.
Even today, Cornell-Dubilier, which sits adjacent to one of the most breathtaking views of the outer harbor, remains a shell of its former self. The adjacent Mott Street playground is polluted, and the company runs only a skeleton crew at the operation.
The EPA announcement Wednesday, by the way, included the fact that the state of Massachusetts has reached a deal with Cornell-Dubilier to fund $3.6 million of shoreline remediation along the remediated harbor and $400,000 for the state’s cost of operating and maintaining the Superfund remedy.
One wishes one could say all’s well that ends well, but it’s been 40 years of an environmental nightmare for the city. And that doesn’t even include the moms and pops and sisters and brothers who may have gotten sick working at Aerovox and Cornell.
You can say that hindsight is easier than foresight. You can say that the folks who put the PCBs in the Acushnet River didn’t know how dangerous they were in the 1940s, and ’50s, and ’60s and ’70s. Maybe. But it’s hard to imagine they thought there wasn’t some harm by letting this goopy stuff slide into the water.
There’s ignorance. And there’s willful ignorance. We’re all accountable for both.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.