Public Television from Indiana University

WTIU Reports

This program originally aired on February 14, 2002

The following is a transcription of an interview conducted at the General Motors Powertrain facility in Bedford, IN on January 10, 2002. Kathy Bommarito is the Manager of Media Relations for GM Powertrain.

Chuck Carney (CC): First of all, let's talk about what's starting this week. There's the new round [of testing] that is starting this week, and is under way now. What will this involve? Where will this take us as opposed to the last round of testing?

Kathy Bommarito (KB): We're doing additional sampling because the initial round of sampling showed levels ranging from non-detect to levels that are higher than the preliminary screening criteria that you use to determine if additional sampling is necessary. So this week, week of January 7th, we are going out and doing the additional sampling so that we will be able to analyze those results. We'll work with the regulatory agencies. We'll work with the residents, to determine what action needs to be taken.

CC: You've talked about GM taking the lead on this, signing the voluntary agreement. What was GM's thought about this? What did GM want to do to make sure this was contained, handled and that they did what needed to be done?

KB: Well, because GM is a member of this community, our employees live and work here. Of course we're very concerned with the community. We want to make sure that we work with the residents. So, we have decided to really take the lead as you mentioned; sign the voluntary corrective action agreement. When we go and sample on their property, we talk to them, provide the results to them and discuss any concerns that they might have with them. And we're a responsible corporate citizen. We want to of course do the right thing, and that's what we're going to do.

CC: Can you talk about the history here? Obviously, PCBs haven't been used here since the early Seventies. Why were they here in the first place? And what actions has the company taken since then to make sure there aren't any resulting problems from PCBs?

KB: Well, we did use PCBs here from 1965 to 1972. So we discontinued using them thirty years ago. They were valued by industry at that time for their fire retardant and insulating properties. And when it became known that there were some concerns with that material we discontinued using them here. And they were banned in 1979. We did do a lot of action after we discontinued them. We put in a waste water treatment facility. We cleaned equipment and the distribution systems. And we also did some remediation at that time. Today we're working with regulatory agencies, with our voluntary corrective action agreement to do additional sampling and take the necessary steps.

CC: Can you describe the nature of what we know about this problem right now? Essentially, as I take it, it's run-off into creeks and other water that may be in the ground and therefore in some of the soil. What's the basic nature of what the company's trying to find out could be the problem with PCBs now?

KB: We're evaluating all of the existing material. We're investigating. We did sampling of the stream and soil sediment and fish. And the test results ranged from non-detect to levels that are higher than the preliminary screening criteria. And that's why we are doing additional sampling right now. And working with the residents, we've informed them about the test results on their property. We told the residents who are downstream from the facility to not use the creek on their property, to stay out of the area that generally floods on their property. We also asked them to keep any pets and animals that they may own away from that area. All as a precaution.

CC: So, right now there's nothing we know for sure except for some of these preliminary numbers. As a precaution, the company's saying you should stay out of these creeks, but you really don't know how harmful it could be, if it's harmful at all, right?

KB: We don't believe that there's any immediate health risk to the residents. By asking them to stay away from the creek, from the floodplain area on their property, we wanted to just do that as a precaution. And we're doing that additional sampling right now to get some more data, which we'll evaluate, work with the regulatory agencies and with the residents. And work with them to address any concerns that they might have and take the action that would be required.

CC: So, you're trying to keep a dialogue with the residents?

KB: Yes, we have an ongoing dialogue with the residents. When we received the test results from their property, we met with the residents. Called them, arranged an appointment so that we could sit down and explain those results to them. Spend some time with them and address any concerns that they might have. Because it's very important to us because we are a member of the community. And we want to work with the residents and address any concerns that they have.

CC: Has there been thought to what—and this may be too much theorizing—but what the worst case scenario might be? What you might need to do for residents if this is proven to be worse than thought. Or are we there yet?

KB: We're still investigating. That's why we're doing that additional sampling, and that has started this week, week of January 7th. And we will continue to sample, evaluate the data, work with the regulatory agencies, keep the residents informed. You know, we keep that open dialogue with them. We have a toll-free number that is set up that they can call. And they have contacts here at the plant that they can call if they have a question or a concern.

CC: You said that there was one well that the PCBs were over a level of drinking water standards. Is that right?

KB: It was higher, but that well is not used for drinking water. We did the private well survey and sampling in a half mile radius of the plant. We went and talked with 380 residents, and asked them if they had a well. And of that number we had seven wells and four cisterns. None of which were used for drinking water. And only one of those had a level that is higher than the preliminary screening criteria. The others were all non-detect. And that well, just like the other ones, and cisterns, is not used for drinking water. So, we did go back to that resident and provided the information to him and confirmed that the well was not used for drinking water.

CC: Is this a problem, is there experience that GM has at other plants where they've dealt with, had to deal with, similar things? Is this something that GM may be familiar with, how to handle this and the proper steps to take?

KB: Well, the corrective action process really is a normal process that companies with operations like GM go through. It's just a normal part of things you have to do. And we do have, I believe, a couple of dozen sites that we do have corrective action agreements on. The two that come to mind are in Pontiac and Lavonia. So we do have experience with the corrective action process and working with the regulatory agencies. We do have a very good, close relationship with them—regular dialogue, sit down and meet with them. Discuss the results of our testing and develop our next steps with their feedback.

CC: So this could theoretically be a pretty long process.

KB: It is a long process. That's correct. It takes a while to determine where to sample, to determine what types of material you want to sample. And to evaluate that information, go back, you might have to do some more sampling. It is a long process. But we're committed to seeing this project through wherever it takes us. The people of Bedford can feel confident about that. We're a member of the community, and they're very important to us. We will do the right thing.

CC: You said that the sampling that's going on now, once it's completed will take eight to ten weeks to get results back.

KB: Right. It does take that long for the samples to go to the lab. There's a lot of quality control measures that are used. So it does take that long before the results come back, so that we can evaluate them.

CC: How long will it take to do this round?

KB: It's going to take several weeks to do that. I know that we don't expect to get the results back until mid-year 2002.

CC: So, what happens after this? You've got this level of sampling; where do we go after this? Does that remain to be seen?

KB: We are; we are very early in this whole corrective action process. This additional round of sampling, when we get those results, we'll be evaluating those. We'll be working with the regulatory agencies, talking to the residents to determine what the appropriate next steps are.

CC: What has the general response of the residents been? Obviously some of them have expressed concern, I would suppose. Have they been fairly understanding about this so far? When GM has come to talk to them.

KB: I believe so. I think the residents have really appreciated that we have gone and sat down with them and explained those test results to them. And spent some time with them; we've made it clear that we are going to address concerns that they may have. And we keep that open dialogue with them. I mentioned that we do have the toll-free number. They have the names and phone numbers of people here at our plant that they can call and address any questions to.