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John Foster Touted as a Hero For His Role in Bloomington’s PCB Cleanup

John Foster, an alumni of Bloomington’s University School, is the son of a former IU professor.  Throughout his career he has held many different jobs most of which were unrelated to his pursuit of a degree in art.

Steven Higgs, an IU graduate and long-time, Bloomington-based environmental reporter, considers John to be an environmental hero, so much so that John was the focus of one of the nine chapters in Higgs’ book, Eternal Vigilance:  Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana, published by the IU Press in 1995.

John was just a freshman in 1957 when Westinghouse Electric opened a manufacturing plant on Bloomington’s west side to produce electrical capacitors.  PCBs were used inside the capacitors as an insulating oil.  It was not until 1975 that Bloomington became aware of a PCB problem.  The problem was due to waste from the manufacturing process being disposed of in local landfills and city sewage lines.

According to Higgs, in 1982 John was working for a contractor to remediate a landfill where PCB-contaminated electrical capacitors from Westinghouse had been dumped years before.[1], [2]  When John became aware that what he was being asked to do did not really remove the hazards of the dump, he notified EPA.  They took no action.

A few months later, John’s employer received a new contract for the remedial cleanup of another PCB dump site in Bloomington.   John believed the cleanup was a farce and in 1984 contacted Mayor Tomi Allison with his concerns.  Allison took no action.

When John came across a letter from the State Board of Health stating that no one working at PCB landfills should be there without respirators and full-body covering, he became angry.  This was the beginning of his environmental activism and dedicated opposition to the proposed PCB cleanup agreement.

In 1987, John began leading guided tours of Bloomington’s contaminated sites.  The tours wound up at the farm of Dale and Connie Conard who lived next to one of the contaminated landfills.  Hundreds of deformed pigs were born on the Conard farm.  Some of the dead and deformed pigs were frozen in order to made them publically available at a later time and illustrate the problems associated with PCB contamination.

Throughout the chapter, Higgs outlined the many efforts of John to rid Bloomington of PCBs in a responsible, non-hazardous manner.  Those living in Bloomington since 1957 truly owe John a debt of gratitude.[3], [4]

Blog post written by library volunteer, Randi Richardson.

[1] Legislation in the 1970s prompted a halt to PCB disposal practices of Westinghouse and made them liable for cleanup of polluted areas, and in 1977, Westinghouse halted production of the capacitors using PCBs.  For more information see a case study by Tim Feddersen, 1998, titled “Westinghouse and PCBs in Bloomington, Indiana, available online.

[2] Kate Golden, “Toxic Tourism ( Our Favorite Kind):  Bloomington, Indiana, March 12, 2011, available online at

[3] Steven Higgs, “Killing an Incineration Experiment,” Eternal Vigilance:  Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana (Bloomington IN:  IU Press, 1995), pp. 138-159.   Available at the Research Library, Monroe County History Center.

[4] On January 27, 2006, the Bloomington Herald Times announced that the former Westinghouse/ABB Plant on Curry Pike was scheduled to close by late summer.

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