December 6, 2000
U.S. to Order $490 Million River Cleanup by G.E.
By KIRK JOHNSON
he Environmental Protection Agency,
in what would be the most ambitious river cleanup in the nation's history,
plans to order the General Electric Company to spend a half-billion
dollars to dredge toxic PCB's embedded in the mud beneath the Hudson River.
The federal plan, which is to be formally announced today in New York,
is a major defeat for G.E., which owned the factories north of Albany that
legally dumped the chemicals in the river over a 30-year period. The company
will have to bear the cost of the cleanup if the proposal becomes a formal
order next year.
"This is a significant moment for the health of the Hudson River and
for the people who live along the river," said the E.P.A.'s administrator,
Carol M. Browner, in an interview. "And it's been a long time coming."
She said the plan was the result of the most intensive review in the E.P.A.'s
A G.E. spokesman called the $490 million plan "unprecedented" in its
scope and "reckless" for the health of the river. The company, which argues
that dredging would disperse into the river toxins safely buried in its
mud, said it would fight the E.P.A.'s plan in every way it could.
"We will do everything in our power to see that this project doesn't
get done because there's no rational scientific basis whatsoever for doing
it," said Stephen D. Ramsey, the company's vice president for corporate
The proposal will enter a period for public comment before a final E.P.A.
order is issued, and the company said it would aggressively present evidence
that the dredging could not be done as safely as the E.P.A. contends and
that it would take far longer than the five years estimated in the plan.
Further complicating matters is that the final order to dredge will
probably be made by an appointee of whoever becomes the next president,
and there is some question whether a Bush administration would be as vigorous
in pushing for a cleanup as the Democrats have been. On the other hand,
the issue in New York has not divided along purely party lines. Last month,
the administration of Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, announced its
support for dredging.
Under the proposed plan, about 2.65 million cubic yards of river bottom
mud, containing an estimated 100,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls,
or PCB's, would be dredged from the river in various so-called pollution
hot spots along a 40-mile stretch from the Troy dam to the Thompson Island
pool, about 35 miles north of Albany. Ms. Browner said that the dredged
material would be sent to existing licensed landfill disposal sites, and
that no local community along the river would be saddled with a toxic dump,
as many local residents had feared.
E.P.A. officials said that boat traffic on the river would not be affected,
and that no portion of the 40-mile stretch would ever be entirely closed.
Environmental advocacy groups said the plan would clean up and permanently
remove a taint from the river that they say would not go away on its own.
But because a cleanup decision on the Hudson has been delayed so many times,
some people also struck a distinct note of caution that their fight for
the river was not over yet.
"This is either going to happen now, or it's never going to happen,"
said Rich Schiafo, an environmental associate at Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit
group that has pushed for an comprehensive dredging plan. "But I feel cautiously
Some officials at the E.P.A., who spoke on the condition of anonymity,
said that caution would probably be wise for all concerned. The agency's
plan, they said, is as aggressive as it has to be to address the biggest
contaminated site of its kind in the world. But size is only one issue.
The agency, one official said, has also never had to try to clean a river
like the Hudson, legendary for its swift and variable currents.
"There are a lot of things the size of the river, the difficulty of
trying to clean up PCB's that are underwater, and it's one of the largest
polluted areas we've had to clean up," the official said.
But for all the complications, the key questions are also fairly simple:
Are the estimated 1.1 million pounds of PCB's that G.E. dumped into the
upper Hudson still a danger? And if so, how can they most safely be removed?
G.E., which used PCB's in the manufacture of electric capacitors at
its factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, was allowed by the state
to dump PCB's into the river for more than 30 years, until 1977, when they
were banned. The chemical, which has been linked to cancer in humans and
various maladies in wildlife, mostly sank to the bottom in a trail of hot
spots extending south from the old factories.
The company's position has been that the old PCB's are now buried
safely insulated from the water by a deep silt layer. Dredging, the company
has said, is thus either dangerous or unnecessary or both. In the courts
and Congress, in the arena of public opinion through a major advertising
campaign upstate this year and particularly through numerous scientific
studies, G.E. has challenged the process that could lead to a dredging
order. Government agencies, for their part, have also come close to a dredging
decision over and over, only to pull back.
In the mid-1980's, for example, shortly after the river was declared
the most PCB-tainted water body on the planet and named a federal Superfund
site, the E.P.A. considered a dredging plan. But the signs that PCB levels
were dropping prompted the agency to wait. In the late 1980's, the state
was preparing to dredge a test area, but then backed off because of local
Later studies in the 1990's indicated that PCB's were not dropping fast
enough, and were perhaps escaping from the silt layer. Scientists from
G.E. countered that the PCB's being detected in the water were a result
of new PCB leakage from its old plants, which it has been cleaning up.
As the studies progressed, the positions about the river mostly divided
into those two great camps, with little room for middle ground. Any active
cleanup inevitably means digging through the sediment.
E.P.A. officials said yesterday that further challenges to its plan
would mostly take place in the court of public opinion. A comment period
that would probably last six months is to begin immediately, and officials
said that a final plan would then be presented next June or July.
The Superfund law, which is designed to address the nation's worst pollution
cases, gives the E.P.A. the authority to issue unilateral cleanup orders,
paid for by the responsible parties. G.E. can present any and all evidence
it wants during that comment period, but E.P.A. officials said that further
litigation would likely center on the costs of the cleanup and how they
were to be assessed, and not on the order itself. The company filed a lawsuit
last week arguing that the Superfund law itself is unconstitutional; that
case will proceed even as the comment period unfolds.
The plan calls for a period of two to three years for designing the
work plan itself, followed by about five years of actual dredging. The
technology that would be used, E.P.A. officials said, called hydraulic
dredging, would answer fears expressed by local residents and complaints
by G.E. that a dredging plan could recontaminate the river with stirred-
up chemicals. A hydraulic dredger, unlike the old-fashioned old clamshell
machines that are used in traditional dredging work, is essentially a giant
box that would be placed at the river's bottom over the contaminated area,
with gaskets that then seal that area from the rest of the river. The dredged
material is taken up into the box, and as Ms. Browner put it, "nothing
The plan predicts that PCB levels in the river's fish would begin declining
within two years after a completed cleanup. Currently, the E.P.A. has advised
that children under 15 and women of childbearing age should not eat fish
from the river. Officials said yesterday that those advisories would be
relaxed in each successive year after the cleanup.
Earlier estimates had put the possible cost of a dredging plan at $1
billion or more, but Ms. Browner said that those estimates assumed an even
larger scope of work, and more costly technologies.
"This is really a targeted cleanup," she said.