Article last updated:
Sunday, December 10, 2000 4:07 AM MST
GE uses varying cleanup tactics
By Jack Dew
Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD -- On the surface, the Hudson River in New York state
and the Housatonic have a great deal in common. Both are rivers that have
been heavily contaminated by PCBs left by General Electric.
But while both bodies of water are now the target of environmental
cleanup efforts, most officials agree the comparisons stop there, and geography
and circumstance take over. Where the Housatonic is a narrow river that
runs slowly through Pittsfield, the Hudson is massive. The size of the
rivers will dictate the cleanup methods -- more precise dredging, done
by dry excavation, in the Housatonic, compared to the messier, less precise
wet excavation in the Hudson. And the contamination found in the Housatonic
is heavier, though contained to a smaller area.
The Hudson has, in the past, supported commercial fishing and is a viable
commercial waterway, while the Housatonic, though scenic and a site for
recreational anglers, is not.
One thing in common: PCBs
"I think the only real connection between the two is GE and PCBs,"
said Bryan Olson, the project manager supervising the Housatonic cleanup
for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Nonetheless, the Hudson has joined the Housatonic as the target
of a massive, EPA-orchestrated cleanup. Last week, the EPA announced it
plans to dredge heavily contaminated pockets of the northern stretches
of the Hudson at a cost of about $460 million.
Cleanup costs for the Housatonic and Pittsfield, meanwhile, have
been estimated as high as $700 million, though few believe it will actually
be that expensive and GE has said it can be done for less than $200 million.
The disparity in price -- with the bigger price tag for the smaller river
-- is explained by the presence of contamination in residential properties
throughout the city.
And unlike the Hudson, the Housatonic is contaminating people's
backyards every time it overflows its banks.
For the Housatonic, the EPA and GE went through protracted negotiations.
City officials participated in those talks as well, and received a significant
carrot from the resulting settlement -- the right to redevelop pieces of
GE's former plant in the center of the city.
Environmental advocates who watched the Pittsfield negotiations
now say that city officials' participation in the talks was based on two
factors: the chance to put new businesses in GE's plant and the fact that
GE had pulled the majority of its jobs out of the city years earlier. There
were only economic incentives for Pittsfield if a settlement were reached,
and no possible losses.
"It was a question of self-interest," said Benno Friedman, one
of the founding members of the Housatonic River Initiative. "When the city
realized there were some deep-rooted economic failures that had to be reversed,
it really understood that one way to reinvigorate itself was to get control
of that big chunk of land in the center of town."
Contrast that to New York state, where communities up and down
the Hudson see no carrot at the end of the EPA's stick. Perhaps as a result,
many of them have taken a position against the EPA's plan to dredge contaminated
sediment from the bottom of the river.
"I think people probably have concerns about what kind of harm
you will cause in order to fix the problem, and I think on the Housatonic
it helped that we had the whole economic redevelopment package tied in
with cleanup and tied in with restoration so that every faction of the
community could get what they wanted out of [the settlement]," Olson, of
the EPA, said.
For both rivers, the contamination stems from GE plants where the company
used polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, as an insulating agent in transformers
and capacitors. The federal government banned the use of PCBs in 1977,
and they have since been deemed a probable carcinogen in humans and are
known to have devastating effects on wildlife.
In the end, the key difference between the Hudson and the Housatonic
may prove to be the means by which a clean river is to be accomplished.
In Pittsfield, the settlement among GE, the EPA, the city and
eight additional state and federal agencies carefully maps how contamination
will be removed from two miles of the Housatonic and from the city. The
settlement also provides for an expedited decision-making process to determine
how the Housatonic south of Pittsfield will be cleaned.
In New York, the EPA has listed the Hudson as a Superfund site,
which entitles the federal agency to dictate the cleanup methods and bill
GE for the cost. In response, GE has already filed a lawsuit in U.S. District
Court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have that provision of Superfund
law deemed unconstitutional, a fight that seems destined for the Supreme
Olson said that, with the Hudson already a Superfund site, GE
doesn't have much motivation to negotiate an amicable settlement since
it normally enters into negotiations with the express goal of preventing
a Superfund listing.
So GE has done something in New York that it never did in Berkshire
County, mounting a massive media campaign against dredging the Hudson.
In television ads, GE shows giant cranes lifting murky mud from the river
bed and dumping it sloppily into the back of dump trucks. The process looks
unsanitary and clumsy, and is juxtaposed with shots of children playing
in the quiet Hudson.
"I think General Electric has always been a company that would
rather spend money on not cleaning up than on actually cleaning up. It's
as simple as that," said Timothy Gray, an HRI member.
In the Berkshires, GE's media blitz was small, with occasional
full-page ads in The Eagle, but otherwise it argued its case at the negotiating
table once the EPA made clear its intentions to clean the Housatonic, with
or without GE's cooperation.
The fate of the Hudson will now rest largely in the hands of the
EPA, which itself may undergo a leadership change when the next president,
whomever he may be, takes office. The courts will also likely have an impact
on the EPA's ability to use Superfund law to order cleanups. If GE wins
its lawsuit and overturns part of the Superfund law, the ramifications
of that decision will stretch far beyond the Hudson's banks, and will have
a potential impact on every Superfund site in the country.
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