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A Toxic Family Superfund Site Cleanup Process

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USA, New York, New York City, Jeffrey's Hook Light or Little Red Lighthouse below George Washington Bridge on Hudson River with blue sky above
USA, New York, New York City, Jeffrey's Hook Light or Little Red Lighthouse below George Washington Bridge on Hudson River with blue sky above

It has been many years since I have been in contact with my immediate family. But I knew the day would eventually come when I would be given the news of either someone's death or notification someone has limited time left to live.

In this case, it is my father. Although I have not spoken to him in many years, I knew his health has been deteriorating. Through various channels, I would hear bits and pieces about his condition.

I was never sexually abused as a child. The abuse came in emotional and mental forms from both my mother and father. It is not such an unusual or unfamiliar story on the surface. From a very young age, I had not lived up to either of my parents' expectations. As a child, I had a serious speech disorder that kept me withdrawn. Being different will always be a source of humor for many kids but my out was to withdraw. Finding things I could do by myself or, even better, finding things to do with other people where speaking was not required was my solution.

This was the age of computer modems and BBS's (bulletin board systems) where we computer people would connect to other, I presume, socially isolated people through our computers. We would leave messages on these computer systems for each other and have cyber friends we would never meet. This was long before anyone heard of the "Internet" or "Facebook." We BBS users thought of the people that ran these BBS's out of their homes (that we used for free) as gods.

Using these BBS systems was not only for socializing. We would talk about programming languages and how to write code. Those of us good enough to write a useful piece of software would upload it to the BBS and our program would gradually make its way across the computer-connected world. My specialty, if you will, was writing utility programs to interact with printers.

My father always told me I was wasting my time, "fooling around on that computer." Ironically, many decades later, I am listed as the inventor on over 50 computer system-related patents in the United States, China, Korea, and Japan. Unfortunately, my father still does not know how to or have any desire to use a computer. Also, according to him, I was never going to make anything of myself, academically speaking. Again, it is ironic this declaration was coming from someone who had dropped out of college after his first year. I graduated summa cum laude three times.

The biggest disappointment to my father is that I was never good at or cared about sports, and that was always the thing on my father's one-track-mind: sports. I assume he wanted to vicariously live through me and he did, for a few years anyway. After failing at baseball, I started basketball where I had an advantage due to my height. By the time I reached the 10th grade, I was done with sports. Playing at the high-school level had too much drama and politics and I could not afford the time. By the age of 15, I was already supporting myself working 50 hours per week while attending public school.

When I recently received the call that my father has 12 months left to live, I honestly did not know what to do. What do you do? Do I just call him up and say I want to talk? How do you go back and patch things up that created decades of family dysfunction?

The more I thought about it, I could not help but see an analogy to the story of the Hudson River Superfund Site. A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste.

In the late 1930's, in Hudson Falls, NY, General Electric Corporation started manufacturing electrical capacitors and transformers for use throughout the United States power grid, which was growing during the post-WWII era. In 1929, the Monsanto Company began manufacturing a chemical called polychlorinated biphenyl, more commonly known as PCB. PCB was a necessary component of General Electric's transformers because the chemical did not burn or conduct electricity and, therefore, was the perfect substance to provide cooling and lubrication inside the transformers.

Concern about PCB being a carcinogen, a substance capable of causing cancer and other harmful effects started as early as 1938, and its use was eventually banned in 1979. But by this time well over 20 million pounds of PCB were found in landfills, the Hudson River, and underneath the two GE manufacturing plants deep within the bedrock.

Plans on how best to clean up the millions of pounds of PCB from the environment were debated for years between environmentalist groups, politicians, lobbyists, GE executives, the EPA, NYS DEC, the scientific community, and Wall Street, all of whom proclaimed to have the answer.

The arguments came down to essentially two choices: dredge the Hudson River or let it be. The main argument for dredging the Hudson River was straightforward and easy to understand. It takes only a small amount of toxin in the water or sediment to poison an entire ecosystem's food web, otherwise known as bioaccumulation.

The arguments for not dredging the Hudson varied, and some even came from the United States EPA who, in 1984, publically decided dredging the Hudson River would cause more damage than help by sending the contaminated sediment further downstream. In addition, General Electric's proponents argued dredging the Hudson River would cause economic disruption and harmful "re-suspension" of the PCBs, their main argument being that the biggest threat is surface sediments and "those buried should be left alone."

So here I find myself with two choices. Do I dredge up all of that damage from the past with my parents, risking a huge emotional cost and disruption to my children, health, and job or should it 'be left alone?"

In thinking about this, I keep coming back to one fact: PCBs do not biodegrade in the environment; they 'weather' but never do they breakdown.