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The PCB Display at the Public Library Didn’t Go As Planned…

Blog post by Rod Spaw

Tales of the H-T: Stories taken from or inspired by the Herald-Times archive at the Monroe County History Center.

A display intended to inform the public about an environmental hazard had unintended consequences for the Monroe County Public Library and its patrons in the summer of 1984.

The issue was polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an insulating fluid used for two decades at the Westinghouse Corp. plant in Bloomington in the manufacture of electrical capacitors. Congress banned the manufacture and use of PCBs in 1976 due to their toxicity and persistence in the environment; once present, it was nearly impossible to get rid of them. By the time Congress acted, an estimated 2 million pounds of PCBs had been released in Bloomington through discharges by Westinghouse to the city sewer system; by the scrapping of old capacitors at unregulated dump sites; and by the use of PCB-laden sewage sludge as a soil amendment throughout Monroe County.

From the Herald-Times Archive at the Monroe County History Center

By 1984, city government had expended nearly 10 years and more than $1 million to address the problem. PCBs seemingly were everywhere, including the local library, as the Herald-Telephone (now the Herald-Times) reported on July 25, 1984.

As reported by the newspaper, state health officials advised the library to close after learning about a display that included burned capacitors and PCB-soaked paper. The materials, along with information about PCB contamination, had been placed in the library about two weeks prior by an activist group called Citizens for Clean Air and Water.

A spokesman for the group told the newspaper that the display was covered and sealed to prevent release of PCBs. However, health officials said they smelled an odor associated with PCB oil after the building was closed. Subsequent air testing detected the presence of PCBs, but at a level well below the limit for occupational exposure, the H-T reported.

Library director Bob Trinkle, who had been on vacation when the display was installed, told the newspaper that the building’s air conditioning system was cleaned thoroughly – twice — as was the carpet and hard surfaces near the display, whose contents were removed by an Indianapolis company specializing in hazardous material handling.

The library then reopened to the public on July 2, one week after it had closed.