The people of New Bedford, Massachusetts, have always been tough. When New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world, seven men would hop into a 25-foot rowboat to chase -- and harpoon up close -- furious 50-foot whales weighing 85 tons. After petroleum replaced whale oil around 1900, New Bedford workers then kept 70 textile mills humming day and night. After textiles moved away, from the 1940s onward New Bedford supplied the world with electric gear. But when those factories began to close in the 1960s, they left behind some awful secrets -- 572 chemically poisoned plots of land within the city's 24 square miles, including land where unsuspecting townspeople built two public schools. In the early 1980s, local people learned that their prized harbor -- all 18,000 acres of it, including its bounty of fish and lobsters -- had been rendered dangerously toxic by factory wastes. In 1983, New Bedford Harbor, the mouth of the Acushnet River, was declared a Superfund site, heavily contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). This small city reeled. To many, the combination of unemployment and toxic waste seemed insurmountable.
PCBs are a family of 209 industrial poisons known to harm humans at extremely low levels of exposure. PCBs cause cancer, diabetes, birth defects, liver disease and high blood pressure -- and they disrupt the nervous, hormonal and immune systems, giving rise to a broad array of other problems. A few of the 209 PCBs are thought to pose a toxic threat even more potent than dioxin.
About 60,000 of New Bedford's 95,000 residents live in "environmental justice neighborhoods as defined in Massachusetts law, based on percent of people who have low income or identify as minority or lack proficiency in English. But, like residents of decades past, they have proven themselves tough. To face down the menace of PCBs, grassroots groups sprang up, determined to force a complete cleanup of their poisoned city, 55 miles below Boston on the South Coast. The Hands Across the River Coalition (HARC) got on the case first, assisted by the Roxbury-based Toxics Action Center. They were joined by CLEAN (Citizens Leading Environmental Action Network) and the Buzzards Bay Coalition. To this day, HARC's leader, Karen Vilandry, is a relentless watchdog, calling out corruption, mismanagement and bad decisions, naming names fearlessly.
Now President Trump has once again shown local people the government can't be trusted to keep its word. Less than a month into his presidency, Trump proposed severely cutting the national budget for toxic cleanups -- doing so at the very moment when a new study has revealed that PCBs wafting off New Bedford Harbor have penetrated homes and offices in nearby towns.