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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.


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SARATOGA 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 entirely understood. 

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.
 
 
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