December 13, 2000
Hearing on PCB Dredging Draws Both Sides in a Town
By KIRK JOHNSON
|G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
|Demonstrators in Saratoga Springs showed support
for a federal plan to make General Electric dredge the Hudson River to
clean up PCB's.
Gives Its Plan on Hudson River PCB's, but a Fight Lies Ahead(Dec. 7,
PCB's Could Be a Cure Worse Than the Disease, G.E. Insists (Dec. 7,
to Order $490 Million River Cleanup by G.E.(Dec. 6, 2000)
Hudson, Cleanup Idea Stirs Emotions(Dec. 2, 2000)
War Over PCB's in Hudson, the E.P.A. Nears Its Rubicon (June 5, 2000)
• The Natural
World: The Environment
Over the Cleanup (June 5, 2000)
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• EPA Announces Its
Preferred Cleanup Plan
ARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., Dec. 12
— The scientists, the bureaucrats and the corporate executives have all
had their say about the Hudson River and its toxic PCB troubles. But tonight,
for about 20 students in the 9th and 10th grades at Mohonasen High School
in Rotterdam, what had been a mostly academic debate over the river became
local and personal and real.
The students, who have been studying the river and its pollution in
biology class at their school, just outside Albany, were among more than
1,100 people crowded into a downtown ballroom on a frigid night for the
first public hearing on a plan to clean up the Hudson. For two months,
the federal Environmental Protection Agency will try to gauge local feeling
in the Hudson River Valley about a plan to make General Electric dredge
the river to remove the pollutants embedded in its sediment.
"They've really gotten into it," said Adam Barr, a biology teacher from
Mohonasen who accompanied the students. "And they're divided right about
down the middle — half support dredging and half don't."
For both the government and G.E., such equations of public sentiment
are crucial. Federal law requires the E.P.A. to consider local opinion
before it issues a final order next year on what could be the largest river
dredging operation in the nation's history. The nearly $500 million project
would remove 100,000 pounds of PCB's, or polychlorinated biphenyls, and
thousands of tons of earth.
But the hearing process also promises to be a major test for General
Electric and the extensive public relations and advertising battle that
it has waged upstate over the last year, trying to convince local residents
that dredging would be an environmental disaster.
Last week the federal agency proposed a plan to dredge portions along
the most polluted 40 miles of the river, between Troy and the two G.E.
factories, in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. The factories, about 20 miles
north of Saratoga Springs, dumped and spilled an estimated 1.3 million
pounds of PCB compounds into the river over 30 years, until PCB's were
banned in 1977.
In form, the hearing seemed about halfway between a town meeting and
a civics class. About 110 speakers had signed up to speak for their allotted
two minutes before the microphone, and while some ranted and yelled, others
calmly asked questions, and one woman even recited a poem she had written
for the occasion, in support of dredging. Almost every speaker got a round
of mixed cheers and jeers when finished.
One of the high school students, Nina Evans, a 10th grader, said she
learned as much about people at the hearing as she did about the river.
"I learned a lot about how people can get rude," she said.
What people actually said at the hearing was only part of the evening's
drama, which began with dueling rallies preceding the meeting.
The Sierra Club, the national environmentalist group, went first, just
before 5 p.m., and demonstrated in support of the dredging plan. Several
dozen people, some in the white toxic-waste suits that have become standard
attire for environmental protesters, held a banner that whipped in the
cold wind, and sang a parody of "Jingle Bells," with words that went, in
part, "Jingle Bells/ Hudson smells/ G.E.'s got to pay."
An anti-dredging rally, called by a group called Cease, based in the
Hudson Falls-Fort Edward area, largely fizzled, though. A chartered bus
with seats for 100 arrived with fewer than 20 people, and it was 20 minutes
late for its own rally.
"We thought we'd have more," said Mary Ann Nichols, a Fort Edward resident
who got off the bus with a "We Oppose Dredging" sign. "But there's a high
school basketball game tonight between Fort Edward and Fort Ann — lot of
people stayed home for that."
When it comes to the Hudson and General Electric, opinion is a tricky
business. Since the late 1970's, scientists have differed over whether
PCB's already in the river can contaminate new areas, and whether a complex
river like the Hudson, which has a strong reverse tidal surge that sends
currents many miles up river from New York Harbor every day, can ever be
The relative health threat from exposure to PCB's has also been in dispute.
Many studies have linked PCB exposure to cancer in humans and to other
problems in wildlife, and the E.P.A. currently warns that children under
15 and women of child- bearing age should not eat anything taken from the
river's waters. A study sponsored by G.E., however — examining the cancer
rates of more than 6,000 workers in the company's factories in Fort Edward
and Hudson Falls — concluded that PCB's had not increased the workers'
likelihood of getting cancer.
Some of the residents who came out tonight to oppose dredging were,
they said, really opposing other things, like big government and people
from New York City.
"One of the things that bothers me is having a lot of downstate people
who are up here to tell us what to do," said Harrison Downs, a resident
of Schuylerville, about 30 miles north of Albany. Mr. Downs said he thought
that most New York City residents were probably in favor of dredging, and
most upstaters were not, though, he hastened to add, he had nothing against
people from New York City.