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 Court.

 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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