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Persistent contamination with PCBs in New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts, The US

Since 1979, fishing has been banned in New Bedford Harbor itself as a result of PCB contamination. The local community, and EJ community based on MA standards, has suffered negative health and socio-economic impacts.


New Bedford Harbor (NBH) is one of the busiest fishing ports in the United States: around a million pounds of seafood go through the port every day [1]. However, since 1979, fishing has been banned in the harbor itself as a result of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination. The entire harbor is contaminated, making it the largest Superfund site in the United States at over 18,000 acres [3].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Persistent contamination with PCBs in New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts, The US
Country:United States of America
State or province:Massachusetts
Location of conflict:New Bedford
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project details

- In 1979 the EPA banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as they were possible carcinogens.

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Project area:7,285
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:95,000
Start of the conflict:1979
Company names or state enterprises:Aerovox Corporation from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Massachusetts Department of Public Health
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Hands Across the River Coalition, Alternatives for Community and Environment (, Toxics Action Center (, Community Economic Development Center (, Citizens Leading Environmental Action Network, Boston University Superfund Research Program (
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Recreational users
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other Health impacts
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths
Other Health impactsAcute and chronic illness such as : Cancer and neurological issues possible from PCB exposure, increased rates of ADHD among the local population. Also respiratory issues, choking, coughing, sore throats and headaches have been reported.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts, Loss of livelihood
Potential: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Other socio-economic impactsFishing for subsistence is no longer a safe, sustainable possibility. Recreation on local beaches is also no longer a possibility.
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Millions of dollars has been spent to clean up New Bedford Harbor, and the EPA predicts that remediation will be finished in the next couple of years. AVX was held accountable for the damage it has caused, and money from the settlement has gone towards environmental restoration. Local EJOs have strong community support and continue to monitor the ongoing restoration and decontamination of the harbor.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Conservation Law Foundation. "New Bedford, Massachusetts Environmental Justice in the Twenty-First Century." (2016).
[click to view]

[3] Basra, Komal, M. Patricia Fabian, and Madeleine K. Scammell. "Consumption of contaminated seafood in an environmental justice community: A qualitative and spatial analysis of fishing controls." Environmental Justice 11, no. 1 (2018): 6-14.

[5] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). "Hazardous Waste Release |New Bedford Harbor, MA| 1940s – 1970s." (2020).
[click to view]

[8] Heiger-Bernays, Wendy J., Kathryn Scott Tomsho, Komal Basra, Zoe E. Petropoulos, Kathryn Crawford, Andres Martinez, Keri C. Hornbuckle, and Madeleine K. Scammell. "Human health risks due to airborne polychlorinated biphenyls are highest in New Bedford Harbor communities living closest to the harbor." Science of The Total Environment 710 (2020): 135576.

[1] Boston University School of Public Health. "New Bedford Harbor." n.d.
[click to view]

[4] Community Action Works. "Environmental Justice Forum in New Bedford, Mass., Highlights the Work Ahead." n.d.
[click to view]

[6] Lennon, Anastasia. "EPA, residents discuss Superfund site progress." South Coast Today. (2021).
[click to view]

[7] Serreze, Mary. "New Bedford and Fairhaven PCB Cleanup to be Discussed." WBSM. (2021).
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Arielle Landau, BOLD Fellow at the EJAtlas, [email protected]
Last update03/11/2021
Conflict ID:5675
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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