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December 6, 2000

U.S. to Order $490 Million River Cleanup by G.E.


United Press International
Toxic PCB's were used in the manufacturing of power capacitors like these at a General Electric Company plant in Hudson Falls, N.Y.

Related Article
• On Hudson, Cleanup Idea Stirs Emotions(Dec. 2, 2000)
• In War Over PCB's in Hudson, the E.P.A. Nears Its Rubicon (June 5, 2000)
• The Natural World: The Environment

The 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 history.

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 environmental programs.

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 victorious."

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 community opposition.

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 escapes."

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.
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