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January 5, 2001 

PCB Study Stays Neutral on Dredging Plan


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EPA Announces Its Preferred Cleanup Plan

Core Sample Sources on the Hudson

Hannah Fairfield/ The New York Times

A long-awaited study released yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences about PCB pollution and the various strategies for cleaning it up does not endorse a plan by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to dredge the Hudson River.

But neither does it reject the proposal.

The study's summary the full text will not be issued for several months goes out of its way to say that it will provide no final answers to a question that has become a high-stakes issue among competing political, economic and environmental interests in New York: what is to be done with the river?

"Many readers expect this report to recommend remediation options," the report says. "However, the committee strongly believes that making such recommendations is not appropriate" because the study focused on how to make cleanup decisions in general rather than on any specific case.

But in the politicized debate over the river that has erupted since the E.P.A. announced its nearly half-billion-dollar dredging plan in December, even playing the subject down the middle could give both sides new ammunition.

The study flatly states, for example, that PCB's are a dangerous and potent long-term poison in the environment. That rejects arguments by General Electric, which discharged the PCB's into river from its factories for 30 years until the mid-1970's, and has contended ever since that the danger is exaggerated.

But the study also says that dredging and other so-called active remediation plans are potentially dangerous, too, because no method or technology can eliminate the possibility that some dredged-up pollution could leak back into the water. 

That part of the study raises questions about the E.P.A.'s position: that advances in dredging have all but eliminated the risk that stirred up PCB's could recontaminate the river or nearby soil where the dredging is proposed to take place.

PCB's, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used for decades in the manufacture of electrical conductors and other insulating products, but the chemicals in an oily liquid form that tended to leak through cracks in old cement factory floors were also often hard to contain. PCB's were later linked to cancer in humans and liver damage and other problems in wildlife, and were banned in 1977.

But by then G.E. had spilled or dumped an estimated 1.1 million pounds or more of PCB's into the river about 40 miles north of Albany.

The company has spent millions of dollars on its own scientific studies of the river, and has argued that the PCB's are being naturally buried by river silt and should be left where they lie. 

A spokesman for the E.P.A., Dr. Peter Grevatt, said he believed that the science academy's careful language about how cleanup decisions should be made especially that each polluted site is unique and that generalizations are hazardous provided a vindication of what he said was the agency's careful decision-making process on the Hudson.

"We feel like it provides a mandate for the approach we have taken," said Dr. Grevatt, the senior science adviser for the agency's waste cleanup program.

A spokesman for General Electric, Stephen D. Ramsey, said he thought the report vindicated G.E.'s position just as thoroughly.

"I would hope that this would cause a fresh breath of common sense and logic to be infused into this process," Mr. Ramsey said.
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