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USA: EPA, General Electric Clash Over Hudson River Cleanup

by Brian HansenEnvironment News Service
December 6th, 2000

NEW YORK, New York -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today recommended that the General Electric Company finance a $460 million effort to dredge more than 100,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from a 40 mile stretch of the Hudson River in upstate New York.

Speaking at a news conference in Manhattan where the Hudson empties into the Atlantic Ocean, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Carol Browner said the massive dredging operation is necessary to "restore the environmental health" of the river, which she said is "among America's great national treasures."

Browner said the dredging plan will "protect the health of millions of families and a vast array of fish and wildlife that live with and depend upon the Hudson River and its estuaries."

"This river needs to be cleaned, it will not clean itself," Browner said. "Failure to clean this river will leave fish highly contaminated for generations."

The General Electric Company (GE), which the EPA maintains is responsible for the PCB pollution, sees things differently. In a statement, GE called the dredging proposal "absurd," saying that it "charts a course of environmental devastation for the upper Hudson River for a generation or more."

"This action from the EPA bureaucracy is a misguided attempt to punish a corporation that lawfully discharged PCBs 30 years ago, not a sensible effort to advance public health or the ecosystem of the river," the company declared.

The dredging proposal announced today is the latest development in the EPA's protracted effort to analyze and remove PCB pollutants from the Upper Hudson River. The PCB contaminants were deposited over a 30 year period between the late 1940s and 1977, when GE discharged some 1.3 million pounds of PCBs directly into the river from its facilities in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York.

PCBs, which are manufactured organic chemicals, were widely used during the era as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment. PCBs were banned in 1977 because of evidence that they build up in the environment and cause serious medical problems, such as developmental disorders, thyroid and reproductive afflictions, and cancer.

GE emphasizes that it discharged the PCBs into the river legally, as there were no laws prohibiting such practices at the time. The company currently maintains that the PCBs pose no threats to human health or the environment, because the contaminants are covered by river sediments.

"PCBs in the Upper Hudson pose no health risk in normal recreational and commercial use of the river," GE said in its statement.

GE maintains that the EPA's dredging proposal will "devastate" the ecosystem of the Upper Hudson by stirring up contaminants that would otherwise remain buried. A massive dredging operation such as the one proposed by EPA will also destroy sensitive wetlands, wildlife food sources and wildlife habitat, the company maintains.

GE notes that it has already spent nearly $200 million on its own efforts to control and reduce PCB contamination in the Hudson. The company maintains that capping the remaining sources of PCB contaminants and allowing the forces of "natural sedimentation" to take place will be far more effective remedies than dredging the river.

The EPA counters that the affected portion of the river must be dredged for it to recover properly. The agency points to a host of independent, peer reviewed scientific studies which conclude that without dredging in certain areas, the concentration of PCBs is not expected to reach acceptable health and safety levels.

"The Hudson is too active a river to simply leave the PCBs in place," Browner said.

Scientific evidence shows that the PCBs now buried in the river's sediments are not remaining in place, and are instead moving downstream, Browner said. Limited burial has not stopped the sediments from contaminating the river's fish, which are still tainted with PCB contamination far in excess of safe levels, Browner added.

"The fish are still too contaminated, at levels that exceed safe standards 100 fold," Browner said.

According to an EPA study, four additional cases of cancer can be expected for every 10,000 people eating an average of one meal a week of fish taken from the affected area of the Hudson. That risk is 100 times greater than the EPA's goal for protection under the federal Superfund law which governs the cleanup of toxic sites.

Currently, it is unsafe to eat fish taken from portions of Hudson River downstream of GE's now abandoned plants. Under the "targeted dredging" program proposed by the EPA, people will be able to safely consume fish from those areas "a generation sooner" than they otherwise might, Browner said.

The EPA's proposal "targets" the worst PCB "hot spots" for cleanup by dredging, Browner explained. The EPA hopes to remove more than 100,000 pounds of PCBs, which will constitute some 2.6 million cubic yards of sediment, she said.

Under the plan, the contaminated river sediments would be disposed of at currently existing, licensed landfills located on the Eastern seaboard, Browner said. The administrator was quick to fend off questions suggesting that the PCB laden soils would be "dumped" on the people of the Hudson River Valley, as some critics have charged.

"The proposal does not require any landfills to be constructed, and relies upon existing disposal capacity located outside of the Hudson River Valley," Browner said.

The proposed plan also contains provisions for addressing the PCB contaminants still entering the river through fractures in the bedrock beneath GE's Hudson Falls plant, Browner said.

The plan will take an estimated five years to complete and will cost about $460 million, Browner said. Asked what portion of that total GE would be expected to pay, Browner said, "they would be expected to cover the full cost."

"We want to be clear - we recognize this is not a small undertaking," Browner said. "The best way to move forward is not through years of litigation, but rather through a cooperative process."

Browner called on GE to "come to the table" with the EPA, the affected communities and public health groups to "find a common sense solution" to the Hudson River situation.

"The message I would send to General Electric today is 'please work with us,'" Browner said. "Let's all be about restoring this incredible treasure."

GE was quick to balk at Browner's reconciliatory plea, declaring that it will "join forces with others" to "fight EPA's dredging proposal during the regulatory process."

GE last week took a major step in that regard, as it filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal Superfund law. The law, technically known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), was enacted in 1980 in order to give the EPA the means to protect public health and the environment from the release of hazardous substances.

GE's suit alleges that certain provisions of the landmark federal statute should be declared invalid, because they fail to provide for "constitutional due process of law." The suit maintains that the Superfund law gives the EPA "uncontrolled authority" to order "intrusive remedial projects of unlimited scope and duration in non-emergency situations."

Representing GE in its fight against the EPA is noted constitutional law expert Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard University. Tribe last week said that the Superfund statute gives the EPA power to "skew the evidence, ignore other points of view and order action without any independent review."

"This is an Alice in Wonderland regime of punishment first, trial afterwards," Tribe said as the suit was announced. "This offends the Constitution."

Notably, Tribe was the attorney who argued on behalf of Vice President Al Gore in the Presidential election recount case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

Gore cast himself as the environmental candidate in the still unresolved race for the White House, ridiculing the conservation record of his Republican opponent, Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Tribe's decision to represent General Electric in a lawsuit against the EPA is troubling for many environmentalists, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Kennedy, president of the Water Keepers Alliance, told ENS that Tribe's decision to represent GE was "greatly disappointing to those of us who formerly admired Larry Tribe."

"There are some things that you shouldn't do for money," Kennedy said. "There's a lot of people suffering in the Hudson Valley because of what General Electric has done."

Asked if his disappointment in Tribe extended to Gore, Kennedy said, "I'm hoping he [Tribe] does GE the same favor that he did Vice President Gore." Kennedy was referring to Tribe's failure to convince the Supreme Court to immediately dismiss a complaint brought by Bush.

Still, Kennedy said his group will "continue to fight General Electric," and will come to the aid of the EPA in the federal lawsuit pending against it.

"General Electric doesn't want to clean up the Hudson because the Hudson is not its only problem," said Kennedy, who pointed out that the company is a responsible party at 83 Superfund sites throughout the United States. "They know if they have to clean up the Hudson, they're going to have to clean up the other 83 rivers that they've polluted as well," Kennedy said.

Kennedy called GE the "worst polluter in the world," saying that the company's prosperity is "pollution based prosperity."

"They've spent the last 30 years trying to buy politicians and trying to destroy the judicial process and the political process by hiring these phony scientists" to conduct their studies, Kennedy said.

The EPA's proposed dredging plan for the Hudson will soon be available for public review on the agency's website, located at: http://www.epa.gov.

General Electric also has information about the Hudson online at: http://www.ge.com.





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