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 . 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 .
During the industrial revolution, electronics manufacturers moved into New Bedford, and brought PCBs with them. For 25 years, these manufacturers discharged PCBs directly into the harbor and through New Bedford’s sewage system. Aerovox Corporation, which began operation in 1939, became the major polluter of the harbor. PCBs were used in electronics manufacturing until they were banned by the EPA in 1979. As a result, New Bedford Harbor was closed to fishing in 1979, and listed as a Superfund site in 1983 . The contamination of PCBs spread to the waters, sediments, plants and wildlife of NBH, as well as parts of Buzzards Bay . One location even contained the highest concentration of PCB ever documented in a marine ecosystem .
PCBs are classified as probable carcinogens by the EPA. PCBs also bioaccumulate, meaning they become more concentrated as they move up the food chain. This makes consuming fish from the harbor particularly risky for humans, as the fish accumulate PCBs from the sediment on the floor of the harbor and by consuming smaller fish and algae. Locals have also been exposed through the air when PCBs evaporate from the water . A 2019 Boston University study found that PCBs released by the harbor pose a health hazard when inhaled . Research now links exposure to PCB with health impacts on the reproductive, immune and neurological systems, as well as an increase in ADHD .
New Bedford is made up of communities of low-income residents, immigrants and people of color . Marginalized communities are living with the legacy of PCB contamination: an environmental injustice. 71.3% of New Bedford’s census blocks meet Massachusetts’s definition of environmental justice communities .
In the early 1990s, the local community formed the Hands Across the River Coalition (HARC) to advocate for the health and education of residents in light of the contamination of NBH. They also led a fight against the EPA’s plan to remediate the harbor by building a PCB incinerator in 1995 .
The legacy of industry in New Bedford has also left as many as 572 brownfields -abandoned or underused properties due to contamination . One of these sites has 2 public schools built on it, known as the Parker Street Waste Site. This site is a former city dump, and over the years has presented anecdotal evidence of PCB contamination. Some of the staff at the high school on site wrote a letter to the headmaster reporting respiratory issues, choking, coughing, sore throats and headaches in 10-15 classrooms . 7 classrooms were remediated. Eventually, in 2015, the city reached a $5.8 million settlement with two of the PCB polluters responsible for the contamination at the Park Street Waste Site .
In 2012, the EPA reopened their legal settlement with Aerovox Corporation and settled for $366 million, the largest settlement for a single Superfund site .
The EPA has spent years on clean-up and remediation efforts and is in its final years of cleaning up the NBH . Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of remaining PCB contaminated sediment will be collected and then stored in a Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cell underwater . However, some community organizations, such as HARC, oppose this plan as they believe the EPA has not sufficiently proved that the CAD cell will not still leak PCBs into the environment . Much of the rest of the contaminated sediment has already been trucked off to a hazardous waste landfill . Since 1998, the New Bedford Harbor Trustee Council has led 37 restoration projects to repair the ecology of the harbor .
After 1999 the EPA began to post signage around NBH warning of the harms of consuming fish caught in the harbor . Notably, it took 20 years since the harbor was closed to fishing to post signs warning the local community. Since 2015, the EPA has partnered with the Community Economic Development Center to provide education and outreach in multiple languages to the local community . There are many anecdotal reports of recreational and subsistence fishing in the harbor, especially among new immigrant communities . There is a particular concerns around the Guatemalan immigrant community, many of which speak K’iche, a language that is not written, and signs around the harbor warning not to eat the fish is only posted in English, Spanish and Portuguese . In addition, only about a quarter of the signs posted by the EPA warn about the harms of consuming fish . A 2018 study confirmed this anecdotal evidence and found that advisories are not reaching vulnerable fishing populations . Of the people fishing that were surveyed, 2/3 reported that their catch was consumed, and that people who ate their catch were less aware of the hazards of consuming the fish .
Although PCB has mostly been removed from the sediment of the harbor, it will continue to persist in the fish of the harbor for generations  and the EPA still recommends people not eat seafood harvested from the harbor .