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GE's "Warm, Caring Impression"

by Eric Francis

From September/October 1994 issue of Sierra

In 1989, when Steve Sandberg went to work for General Electric's used transformer processing plant in Anaheim, California, he had never heard of PCBs or the Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law that banned their manufacture 13 years earlier. He had never heard of dioxins or dibenzofurans, super-toxins created when PCB oil burns or ages. Put to work in highly toxic areas without protective clothing or a respirator, Sandberg says he was given no warning about the chemicals.

Instead, GE told him -- and maintains to this day -- that PCBs are essentially harmless. At GE's PCB training school in Cincinnati, Sandberg says, he and other new workers were given an article from the magazine Hippocrates suggesting that exposure to PCBs is less risky than exposure to the toxins naturally occurring in peanut butter, beer, or raw mushrooms. "They showed us a video with Walter Cronkite saying PCBs were as toxic as table salt," Sandberg said.

Sandberg's job was to clean out hundreds of exploded, burned-up PCB transformers in preparation for shipment to incinerators or landfills. He was sent to the scenes of PCB transformer explosions, operated waste-drum crushing machines, and pumped black, burned PCB oil and other chemicals out of the destroyed transformers. His work put him in direct contact with dioxins and dibenzofurans, chemicals so toxic they are measured in parts per trillion and parts per quadrillion.

Yet at the GE Anaheim plant, barrels and burned transformers were left out in the rain; the drum-storage room contained a couch, desks, and an eating area; and everything was covered by a film of PCB oil and soot. Sandberg says that Mike Nagle, who was in charge of PCB operations at the plant, wouldn't let him move his desk out of the PCB drum-storage room: "He laughed at us and said, 'Oh, this stuff don't hurt ya'."

Eighteen months into his career at GE, Sandberg started to show signs of systemic poisoning, beginning with severe chloracne. A quarter-inch-thick coating of dead skin covered the bottoms of his feet. One day, Sandberg found a fat folder on his boss's desk containing numerous documents on the dangers and health impacts of PCBs. He confronted his boss, who assured him that PCBs were essentially harmless to humans. It wasn't until several months later, when he read in Business Week about the lawsuits containing allegations of badly exposed PCB workers at a Westinghouse capacitor-manufacturing plant in Bloomington, Indiana that he finally began to warn his co-workers of the danger.

General Electric was also spurred to action. An October 28, 1991, memo from GE attorney Bill Thornton outlines a plan for dealing with Sandberg, who, he wrote, "seems to be escalating the situation day by day." General Electric established a public-relations team and called an all-employee meeting at which medical experts flown in from around the country presented GE's side of the story. One such expert was Marie Johnson, an industrial-hygiene nurse from GE's plant at Hudson Falls, New York - best known for its massive PCB discharges into the Hudson River. Johnson is described in the memo as someone who "is very knowledgeable and gives a warm, caring impression."

"It is not expected that we could win the heart and mind of Sandberg," Thornton wrote. "Rather, the meeting is intended to prevent him from infecting the others. Depending on how he reacts, Sandberg could be seen by his fellow employees as someone who is off the wall." Ironically, on the day of the all-employee meeting, Sandberg was moved out of the PCB area of the operation on orders from a GE physician, who concluded that he could not tolerate any further exposure to PCBs.

Yet his managers stuck by their story that PCBs were harmless. Mel Dinkel, a GE manager who insisted that the plant was in full compliance with all PCB regulations, dared Sandberg to go to the state and federal authorities. "He gave me the phone numbers, addresses, everything," Sandberg says. "He said, 'If you feel this company is not in compliance with all the laws and regulations, feel free to call these numbers.' And I did. Boy, did all the shit hit the fan."

Two days later, EPA officials showed up at the door, flipped out their badges, and walked through in yellow moonsuits with sampling kits. Sandberg describes the reactions of the other employees: "They were just in shock. They just stood still. Everything just stopped. All work, all noise, it was silent. All you could hear was the hum of the lights."

In February 1992, the plant's PCB-handling license was suspended by the EPA because further acceptance of waste into the plant posed "an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment." In November, the plant was shut down by state and federal authorities, and in March 1993 the EPA fined General Electric $353,000, one of the highest PCB fines ever levied by the agency.

"They lied to us, that's the bottom line," says Sandberg. His civil suits against GE, Monsanto, and other chemical suppliers are still pending.

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