EPA Ups Ante in Inter-Agency Warfare, Jeopardizing Public Health and Credibility of Federal Superfund Program

In my last blog, I detailed major missteps of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its oversight of the Hudson River Superfund cleanup of toxic PCBs, including allowing the polluter, General Electric, to decommission its massive dredging operations before the agency determined whether the cleanup had met its goals, and ignoring pleas from other federal agencies and evidence that more dredging is needed to restore the river's health.

Now the EPA has upped the ante in its battle with fellow natural resource agencies by issuing a white paper aimed solely at discrediting a peer-reviewed analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicating that without additional dredging, attainment of the EPA's cleanup goals will take decades longer than predicted. Rather than working to achieve consensus among key stakeholders, including agencies charged by federal law with ensuring restoration of the river's long-term health, the EPA has raised more questions about its motives and credibility by issuing the white paper.

This battle of federal agencies coincided with the EPA's official announcement that it is commencing a five-year review of the cleanup. This review is intended to answer the question of whether the cleanup is meeting the EPA's goals of reducing PCBs in Hudson River fish to levels that would make them safe for human consumption. Despite evidence to the contrary, Judith Enck, the EPA Regional Administrator managing this project, has already publicly declared the cleanup a success in an op-ed in the Albany Times Union, causing the public to wonder whether she can objectively manage the review.

NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation are the designated Natural Resource Trustees charged with restoring the health of the Hudson after the Superfund cleanup is complete. The two federal agencies maintain their work has been compromised--even before it can begin--by the EPA's failure to require a more comprehensive cleanup that would address quantities of PCBs in river sediments two to three times greater than originally estimated. Computer models cannot make these PCBs go away. With time, they will contaminate more areas downriver as far as New York Harbor and adversely affect public health along the Hudson through airborne exposure.

As President Obama and EPA Chief Administrator Gina McCarthy assess his administration's otherwise distinguished environmental legacy, a clean Hudson River and respected federal Superfund program will not be on the list. The series of misguided and suspect actions the agency has taken on the Hudson have endeared it solely to the party responsible for creating the country's largest Superfund site--GE. The EPA's failure to adhere to its own guidelines and the spirit and intent of the Superfund law will have serious repercussions for cleanups across the country.

Experience has shown that the EPA and GE only do the right thing on the Hudson when all concerned parties raise their voices jointly in protest. With 161 state legislators and over 80 Hudson River municipalities already pressing for a more comprehensive cleanup, one might ask what more can be done. I urge you to contact EPA Administrator McCarthy at mccarthy.gina@epa.gov and ask her to get this cleanup back on track before the end of President Obama's term.

In my next blog, I'll discuss how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman can live up to their responsibilities by joining federal environmental agencies and NGOs calling for a comprehensive cleanup and restoration of the Hudson--in our generation.