GE: Decades of Misdeeds and Wrongdoing

Multinational Monitor, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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GE: Decades of Misdeeds and Wrongdoing

GE HAS A LENGTHY RECORD OF CRIMINAL, civil, political and ethical transgressions, some of them shocking in disregard for the integrity of human beings. Here are a few examples:

In 1995, with the establishment of a Presidential Advisory Commission, the full extent of GE's human experiments with nuclear radiation were revealed. General Electric ran the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington as part of the U.S. weapons program. Beginning in 1949, General Electric deliberately released radioactive material to see how far downwind it would travel. One cloud drifted 400 miles, all the way down to the California-Oregon border, carrying perhaps thousands of times more radiation than that emitted at Three Mile Island.

In 1986, Representative Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, held hearings in which it was disclosed that the United States and General Electric had conducted experiments on hundreds of United States citizens who became "nuclear calibration devices for experimenters run amok." According to Markey: "Too many of these experiments used human subjects that were captive audiences or populations ... considered 'expendable' ... the elderly, prisoners and hospital patients who might not have retained their full faculties for informed consent."

One of GE's most gruesome experiments -- disclosed in the Markey hearings -- was performed on inmates at a prison in Walla Walla, Washington, near Hanford. Starting in 1963, 64 prisoners had their scrotums and testes irradiated to determine the effects of radiation on human reproductive organs. Although the inmates were warned about the possibility of sterility and radiation burns, the forms said nothing about the risk of testicular cancer. Markey's committee heard allegations that, at the time of the experiments, General Electric violated both civil and criminal laws.

GE's nuclear testing is merely one example of a lengthy corporate history of malfeasance that includes conviction of criminal price-fixing in the 1960s and many equivalent deeds. This article highlights only General Electric's recently adjudicated or settled criminal or civil violations.


* GE IS WHOLLY OR PARTIALLY LIABLE for at least 78 federal Superfund sites.

* ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1998, GENERAL ELECTRIC agreed to a $200 million settlement in principle of environmental claims resulting from pollution of the Housatonic River and other areas by chemical releases from GE's plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (The settlement was reached with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice.)

The claims result from a long history of GE's use and disposal of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other hazardous substances at the plant, which GE no longer uses for manufacturing. (PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, were commonly used in electrical devices and lubricants from the 1930s through the 1970s, when they were banned.)

Under the settlement, GE will remove contaminated sediments from the one-half mile of the Housatonic River nearest the GE plant. Through a cost-sharing agreement, GE will also fund much of the anticipated cost of an additional mile-and-one-half of river cleanup to be conducted by EPA.

These river cleanups will include contaminated riverbanks and soils in properties in the flood plain along the river. Later, after a cleanup plan is selected for downstream portions of the river, GE will perform that cleanup as well.

In addition, GE will remedy contamination at the Pittsfield plant and other nearby areas, including a school and several commercial properties. The settlement also will address claims that hazardous substances released from the GE plant caused injuries to natural resources in the Housatonic River downstream of the plant, extending through Massachusetts and into Connecticut.

In addition to cleaning up, GE agreed to pay $15 million in damages and to conduct a number of projects designed to acquire or enhance wildlife habitat.

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