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Lighting the World Took a Toll on New Bedford Harbor

More than thirty years after being added to the EPA's National Priorities List of toxic cleanup sites, much of New Bedford Harbor remains off-limits for fishing.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The mud at the bottom of New Bedford Harbor tells a tale of more than a century of industrial pollution. John Farrington helped reveal that history and get the harbor on the EPA’s cleanup list.

New Bedford has been called the City that Lit the World the world. The moniker, of course, derived from New Bedford’s central role in the production of whale oil. As whaling declined, manufacturing took its place and, by the mid-twentieth century, New Bedford was once again helping to light the world with factories that produced electrical transformers and capacitors.

Both whaling and manufacturing were major economic drivers, but they took a toll on the harbor and communities that made the city so prosperous. To this day, the sediment at the bottom of New Bedford Harbor carries high levels of heavy metals from whaling-era ships and foundries, and cancer-causing, oily chemicals called PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, that were used in electrical components.

Dr. John Farrington
Credit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Dr. John Farrington

John Farrington grew up in New Bedford during the heyday of electrical manufacturing. His mother was an industrial nurse, first for Aerovox and then for Cornell Dubilier - the two companies that made electrical components with PCBs. She told her son that when workers started to complain about rashes from "the new oil" (a.k.a. PCBs), the factories would simply hose down the work areas between shifts.

Farrington went on to become an environmental chemist who helped put New Bedford Harbor on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the most toxic waste sites in the country. He's now Dean Emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, also Adjunct Professor University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology.

Ironically, Farrington says it wasn't his childhood experiences in New Bedford that got him interested in science. It was Sputnik and the space race. But a high school football injury derailed Farrington's plans for a career as a military aviator and astronaut.

Farrington worked nights to put himself through college at New Bedford Institute of Technology, a precursor to what is now University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Along the way, he became interested in environmental chemistry, particularly oil spills. He got his Ph.D. at University of Rhode Island, then came to Woods Hole to study the 1969 West Falmouth oil spill.

But more senior colleagues in Woods Hole and elsewhere were uncovering another mystery that would eventually pull Farrington in. PCBs were showing up in ocean waters, marine life, and sea birds around the globe, but nobody knew where they were coming from. Farrington helped piece together the puzzle, and was instrumental in drawing the attention of government officials to the toxic mud in New Bedford Harbor.

Farrington says he was occasionally criticized by colleagues for being too much of an advocate and compromising his scientific objectivity. But Farrington says he had to do what he felt was right, what allowed him to look himself in the mirror each morning.

Decades later, Farrington has retired from research, but New Bedford harbor remains a site in need of cleanup. On top of the metals and PCBs already there, Farrington cautions we're adding a new and complex mix of chemicals - pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and household cleaners - that flow through our septic systems and sewage treatment plants. He says we were late to the game on PCBs and hopes we'll learn from that and do better at responding to emerging environmental threats.