by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage
Over the summer, there was a palpable atmosphere of excitement in Utica as if a parade could spontaneously come into existence. No our Utica Comets hadn’t won the Calder Cup. Turns out that our governor, Andrew Cuomo, had announced big news about the nano center just north of Utica. Companies had finally signed on. Jobs were coming. Jobs!
Plan that parade if you feel like it. But is it a bona fide cause for celebration? The well-meaning folks at Made In Utica think so. $200 billion invested. A proposed 2,500 jobs — some paying up to $91,000. A school-to-job pipeline for graduates of SUNY Polytechnic, Mohawk Valley Community College and Utica College. It seems that per Made In Utica’s suggestion “the haters and internet trolls can go hide back in their holes, find something else to do”.
With any deal involving moneyed parties and Andrew Cuomo, however, if it seems too good to be true, like the charter school models and teacher evaluations he supports, then it might just be. While jobs coming to Utica is something that will be hard to ignore or rain down on, there are some big concerns that come along with them which were recently covered in-depth by the International Business Times.
Primarily, General Electric, identified as one of the big investors (the other being Austrian company AMS), has been a notorious purveyor of corporate pollution and is equally notorious at fighting attempts to get them to clean up their messes, as covered in the article. The levels of PCB contaminants, which can contribute to cancer and other illnesses, in the Hudson River leftover from 40 years of chemical dumping, were recently determined to be far greater in scope than initial EPA and GE estimates — and greater even than estimates from 2002.
In 1984, the Reagan administration declared 200 miles of the 315-mile-long Hudson River a Superfund site for environmental cleanup, but it was later determined that rehabilitation efforts might do more damage. It wasn’t until the second Bush administration that a deal was reached between the EPA and GE over cleaning up the Hudson, but that was limited to just 40 miles of the river north of Albany using “wildly off the mark” estimates on variables of PCB contamination, according to Dan Raichel of the National Resources Defense Council.
With two to three times more PCBs contaminating the river, and their rate of decay overstated by up to six times, the proposed cleanup of just 65 percent of PCBs in the designated 40-mile stretch means that there will be much more contamination left over than initially forecasted when the deal ends next year. Guess who picks up that tab?
What about government oversight, though? Shouldn’t GE be responsible for its own mess? It seems that when you donate nearly half a million dollars to the governor and his supportive political groups since 2009, you also purchase a lot of favors. Favors that have taken the shape of unearned tax breaks and public subsidies continuing a trend of the Governor for Sale that has already worked out so well for public education.
Just as with public education there is considerable opposition from within Cuomo’s own party over his handling of GE. As the IBTimes article states, 141 Assembly members and 25 Senators have sought to guide the governor in a direction which makes sure GE finishes its Hudson River cleanup.
Coming back to Utica, the nano center’s proximity to the Utica Marsh, Barge Canal and Mohawk River adds to the likelihood of nanoparticles being added to these water sources during production, and of particular concern, the capacity of said particles to carry heavy metals. Ironically, nanotechnology may hold true benefits for environmental use, but studies on this remain low in number and mostly ongoing.
In a March 2014 study by researchers Jabrinder Singh and S.B. Bhardwaj titled Environmental Nanotechnology: Application, Implication and Regulation, which included experiments conducted at the University of Rochester, the two made the following conclusions on nanoparticle implications:
1. It has been found that the process of nanotube manufacturing producedemissions of at least 15 aromatic hydrocarbons, including four different kinds oftoxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) similar to those found in cigarettesmoke and automobile tailpipe emissions.2. Results of a recent experiment indicate that nano-Al2O3 may impact thelife cycle and behavior of Eisenia fetida (an earthworm species), although at levelsunlikely to be found in the environment. Due to increasing use of nano-Al2O3materials in both commercial and military applications, additional studies are ne-eded to determine the fate and transport of this material in terrestrial and aquaticecosystems.3. Innovative research and diagnostic techniques for biological testing haveadvanced during recent years due to the development of semiconductor nanocry-stals. Although these commercially available fluorescent nanocrystals have a pro-tective organic coating, the inner core contains cadmium and selenium. Becausethese metals have the potential for detrimental environmental effects, concernshave been raised from the lack of understanding of the environmental fate ofthese products.4. Researchers have discovered that silver nanoparticles used in socks onlyto reduce foot odor are being released in the wash with possible negative conse-quences. Silver nanoparticles, which are bacteriostatic, may then destroy bene-ficial bacteria which are important for breaking down organic matter in wastetreatment plants or farms.5. A study at the University of Rochester found that when rats breathed innanoparticles, the particles settled in the brain and lungs, which led to significantincreases in biomarkers for inflammation and stress response.6. A major study published more recently in Nature Nanotechnology sug-gests some forms of carbon nanotubes – a poster child for the “nanotechnologyrevolution” – could be as harmful as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities.7. A newspaper article reports that workers in a paint factory developedserious lung disease and nanoparticles were found in their lungs.
There are clear environmental concerns to behold: A known coporate polluter, that has consistently fought against cleaning up past chemical damages in the Hudson River, is getting the red carpet treatment in Utica to be hosted at a facility essentially on top of three significant water sources, to produce items of which the environmental impacts are admittedly not fully understood, yet have not yielded promising results in studies.
This is the environment, born of the capitalist impulse to relocate industry in order to continue growth, which produces the desperation and scarcity inherent in the subsidies-for-jobs relationship between government and corporations. The collusion here is based on the lack of any conditions which urge GE to continue and finish its cleaning of the Hudson River, public subsidies of up to $135 million and generous tax cuts. General Electric wants to operate under a no-strings-attached guarantee which it has not legitimized. These are all missing pieces of the equation. We’re supposed to believe the potential negative impacts of insisting that GE contribute beyond simply bringing jobs will be our own fault; thus, we should surrender all leverage to a multi-billion dollar corporation or else.
Utica is already tainted by the environmental scars of industry. From Bendix in South Utica to a lead contamination level of epidemic proportions — the latter being a focal point of research for local activist Lana Nitti. While jobs are certainly welcome, also welcome would be a gesture of cooperation with the local community, as well as New York State, by General Electric to continue and finish its Hudson River cleanup and take measures which reduce the likelihood of more contamination in Utica given the company’s track record. As for tax breaks, these should be conditional and based on living up to better environmental standards. Again, GE hasn’t earned anything, they’re simply using the desperate economic climate to their advantage. Uticans are supposed to be proud that they’re getting worked over?
That General Electric gets more than it gives is entirely too emblematic of the relationship between capitalism and economically repressed regions. This exposes a lot of conflict. Also contained in the IBTimes article is a 1998 statement by former CEO of GE Jack Welch in which he admits that “ideally” GE would “have every plant you own on a barge”, highlighting the ultimate advantage of corporations that skip town and the border far easier than workers. As those authors suggest, negotiations so obviously weighted in favor of GE’s demands are merely the “latest iteration of that strategy” regardless of who’s in charge.
Still, the enthusiasm in and around Utica over the projected upside of recent developments has done well to conceal lingering issues like the stark segregation of the city’s population and under-development of poor neighborhoods. In an interview with the Observer-Dispatch, Economics Professor Don Dutkowsky of Syracuse University said that the area “may very well have ‘have or have-not’ pockets” as a result of any significant economic growth in the future.
Those pockets already exist. And while news of upturns in economic activity provide the distractions necessary for the community to keep it from viewing those pockets, it may never get better for those areas. If the environmental impact shows up 30 years from now in rising cancer rates among those who are children today, what has the area truly gained from such lopsided negotiations? Who wins in the long run if we don’t ask questions now?
The future is entirely unwritten. On one hand, nano investment could attract more to the area and the gains are seen for generations. On the other hand, GE could load up its “barge” after 10 years and ship out of town leaving Utica with expensive environmental consequences. Given the length of time it will take to accurately weigh the benefits and costs, we won’t see for many more years whether or not Cuomo helped salvage Utica or sell it out.