Big Blues: The Death of an Industrial Town

By MatThew Gendle

I can clearly remember the day in 1984 when Ronald Reagan came to town. I was an 8-year-old living in Endicott, N.Y., an industrial village home to both IBM and a large shoe company named Endicott Johnson (known to the locals as E-J). The president was campaigning, and that afternoon he would be speaking at the high school football stadium. I recall the deafening approval of thousands of residents when the president began his speech by asking, "Which way E-J?" While this query must have seemed nonsensical to outsiders, it had special meaning to the residents of Endicott. To them, Reagan's question symbolized their pride in Endicott's prosperity, and the assumption that good economic times were there to stay. Who could have guessed that in 20-years time, the same town that once rated an election-year visit from the president would be a polluted economic wasteland?

Early in the 20th century, Endicott experienced rapid industrial expansion powered by E-J and IBM. Many European immigrants came to work in the E-J factories, and their question upon arrival to town, "Which way E-J?," became a catchphrase for the area. Workers adored the Johnson family (who owned E-J), for their generosity toward their employees and welfare capitalist business policies.

Endicott was also the center for much of IBM's early growth, and the village is still recognized as the birthplace of the computer. IBM built a sprawling 150-acre complex in Endicott that eventually employed over 10,000 of the area's residents. A considerable number of IBM employees were white-collar engineers and technicians, and their consumer spending became central to the village's economic vibrancy.

This prosperity produced an aura of economic invincibility which lingered throughout the 1970's and 1980's. Although there were signs that this prosperity would not last, such thinking did not darken the minds of most. A collection of businesses thrived on the streets adjacent to the IBM and E-J facilities, and excellent livings were made catering to the needs of the workers. The area economy had become completely dependent on these workers, and everyone knew that a loss of these jobs would hurt the town terribly.

In addition to the specter of an economic collapse ruining Endicott, another sinister threat was lurking beneath the village. For the majority of their operational life, the E-J leather tanneries dumped leather scraps in an open landfill and pumped untreated industrial waste into a local stream. Backed up against a residential neighborhood and a school, this dump became a favorite place for children to play. My relatives still joke that they could tell what color shoes E-J was making on a particular day based on the color of the creek, and often talk about the fun they had collecting leather scraps they found in the dump. In 1968, the tanneries were closed, and the dump was capped with topsoil and commercially developed. A large shopping center, parking lot, and recreation fields for the nearby middle school were built over the old dump, which insisted on making its presence known. Soon after its redevelopment, the dump began to subside, leaving earthquake-like folds and sinkholes in the shopping center parking lot. By the time I attended the adjacent middle school in 1988, reports of discharges of oily residues and chemical odors from the ground below the recreation fields and inside the school were commonplace. Despite this emerging ecological predicament, few said anything about the potential health effects of the dump, and most citizens remained unabashedly loyal to the Johnson family and E-J.

As troubling as the dumping of waste by E-J might seem, it pales in comparison to the environmental disruption Endicott experienced at the hands of IBM. It was common knowledge that the company was using thousands of gallons of toxic compounds such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and methyl chloroform (TCA) in circuit board manufacturing. But, residents were uninformed about how these compounds were being specifically used and disposed of. My childhood home was situated on a hill overlooking the main IBM manufacturing facility; a warehouse full of 50-gallon drums sat at the bottom of this hill. I remember my neighbors speculating that something unhealthy might be taking place at this site, but no one seemed sure of exactly what. Rumors also circulated regarding the odd chemical smell that sometimes pervaded my neighborhood at night, especially when the wind was blowing from the south over the IBM plants. Perhaps the most perplexing development occurred when construction began on an elevated pipeline that connected the chemical storage warehouse with the manufacturing facility. When my family would drive under the pipeline, I would sometimes ask my parents what it was for. But neither of them knew the answer. In fact, few residents of Endicott outside of IBM knew the true function of this pipe until scientists made a frightful discovery in 2003.

For some time, IBM had been aware that their activities were polluting the ground around the factories with staggering amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as TCE and TCA. This pollution was the result of a history of spills that began in the 1940s, including the release of over 4,100 gallons of TCA from a leaking underground storage tank. The above-ground pipelines I saw being constructed were used to shuttle VOCs between the storage and manufacturing facilities, thus eliminating the risk of additional subterranean releases. Beginning in 1980, IBM drilled hundreds of underground wells in the area surrounding the pollution, and pumped out over 78,000 gallons of chemicals, in the hopes of keeping the contamination from migrating into nearby residential areas. Following the initial discovery of the spills in 1979, IBM and government officials downplayed the danger posed to village residents, as the pollution was characterized as safely trapped in the soil away from human contact. This nonchalant attitude changed quickly in 2003, when VOCs were found to be leaking into hundreds of residential properties surrounding the plants. The spills had created a vast underground plume of VOCs, which was migrating through the soil and fouling groundwater as it advanced.

Initially, few of Endicott's citizens believed that IBM had engaged in any wrongdoing, as the company had a solid reputation of doing right by its employees and community. The townspeople knew that IBM was the source of their livelihoods, and were reluctant to level any accusations of misconduct. However, this mood quickly changed once the staggering scope of the chemical pollution beneath Endicott became clear.

The citizens of Endicott were left with the toxic legacy of E-J and IBM when the good economic fortune of these companies came to a respective end. The principles of welfare capitalism that drove E-J's business decisions were fundamentally at odds with the emerging economics of globalization, and the company that put Endicott on the map was mortally wounded by the availability of cheap foreign labor and the production flexibility of multinational corporations. Although respectable wages and benefits made IBM a desirable employer, such compensation made little business sense in the developing global economy. It simply became too expensive to produce components with domestic labor, and the majority of IBM's manufacturing was moved overseas. As the plants in Endicott were shut down, many of the engineers and technicians that once filled these buildings were laid-off or transferred to other IBM facilities.

By the dawn of the 21st century, Endicott was a ghost of its former self; E-J was gone, and only about 2,000 employees remained at IBM. Property values plummeted, unemployment increased, small businesses suffered, and tax rates rose. The days of Endicott embodying the dream of a worker's heaven had departed along with the municipality's two primary employers.

When visiting Endicott today, it is hard to reconcile the decaying landscape before you with the vibrant town that once existed. The dominating brick E-J factories have long since been torn down and replaced with a generic shopping center. IBM has sold its buildings to a group of local investors, and while some have been leased, others appear to be vacant. Many of these spaces are enormous, and finding desirable paying tenants is difficult. The huge parking lots that IBM had constructed by demolishing blocks of residential housing now sit vacant and crumbling. The entire town now has a decaying look, and residents commonly refer to their village as "Emptycott." The upscale businesses that once populated the downtown shopping district are gone, as is the optimism that so characterized the residents of Endicott on that day in 1984 when the president came to town.

Although E-J and IBM may be specters from Endicott's past, the legacy of pollution they left behind will remain for many years to come. The shopping center built over the E-J dump remains open, and students attending the school next to the dump are still being exposed to toxic compounds in the soil. Although officials have asserted that the dump is not a health threat, one has to wonder if this view will change as site monitoring continues into the future. Vapors from the IBM spills have intruded into the basements of several hundred homes and businesses, and these properties now require venting systems to remove the fumes. Because VOCs have been linked to numerous medical problems, property owners in the plume area are suffering from a double-whammy of declining health and real estate values. It is impossible to receive a fair market price for affected properties, and many citizens are left with no choice but to put their health at risk by continuing to live and work in the polluted area. Although IBM is legally and financially responsible for cleanup, the company appears to be in no great hurry to remedy the situation. Many Endicott residents fear that Big Blue cares more about its bottom line than making things right with its former neighbors. Further complicating the issue, it appears that between 1987 and 1993, IBM vented VOCs directly into the village's air, which may account for the chemical smells I noticed in my youth. Although the long-term effects of this airborne exposure remain unclear, these releases exposed several thousand additional Endicott residents to potentially harmful levels of VOC's.

As I write this account, I am saddened by the grave toll this pollution may have had on the health of generations of Endicott residents. I wonder about friends and relatives who lived and worked in or near the IBM and E-J facilities, and died of aggressive forms of cancer. Was it coincidence? Or did chronic exposure to industrial pollutants significantly shorten their lives? How could we reach a place as a society where business productivity trumps the health and welfare of our citizens?

For many big businesses, workers are a commodity and physical capital is an asset to be used without consideration for long-term stewardship. The citizens of Endicott were unabashedly loyal to the economic patrons of their town, and for their allegiance, were left with a legacy of pollution and a crippled economy. IBM claims that they are committed to fixing this environmental mess, but have yet to admit any wrongdoing. Significant compensation, such as market-value property buyouts and the payment of medical bills, has yet to be offered. And I suspect that such remediation may never come to pass. Until we as a society realize that corporate America is often not our friend, and cares little about the long-term health and welfare of the communities in which they operate, tragic situations just like those in Endicott will continue to unfold.

Matthew Gendle, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Elon University, Elon, N.C.


From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2007

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