One of America's largest, most expensive and most important river cleanups is at a crucial turning point, with the environmental and economic health of Hudson River communities -- from upstate factory towns to New York City -- hanging in the balance. In the next few months, the General Electric Corporation will decide whether to undertake a thorough cleanup of the contamination it caused more than three decades ago, or instead walk away from a job that is only 65 percent complete.
Since the mid-1980s, a 197-mile stretch of the Hudson -- more than two-thirds of the river's length -- has been designated one of the largest federal hazardous waste sites in the country because of the massive amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (commonly called PCBs) that General Electric dumped into the river from two factories on the upper Hudson from the 1940s until 1977. As early as the 1930s, GE executives were aware of health problems in workers exposed to these suspected carcinogens. In the 1960s the company was warned about the deleterious effects PCBs were having on the Hudson -- yet the company continued dumping this toxic substance into the water.
In 1976, when the contamination was discovered not only on the bottom of the river but in its fish, the Hudson's commercial fishing industry -- a key component of the region's culture -- was shut down overnight. (The commercial striped bass fishery industry alone was valued at $40 million annually.) Since then, state and federal health officials have warned people to limit their intake of fish caught in the river and advised pregnant women and children to avoid eating it altogether. Sadly, while most species of fish and crabs remain unsafe to eat, large minority populations continue to rely on them for food.
At the same time, deep-draft transportation on the Champlain Canal -- historically a vital transportation link between the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes -- was forced to a halt. The canal had become so clogged with PCB-laden sediments that the New York State Canal had to abandon its legal obligation to dredge and keep it open as a navigable commercial channel. Since 1984, when the polluted channel became too shallow for most large vessels, annual commercial traffic on the canal plummeted from 700,000 tons to less than 1,000 tons.
Seven years after GE stopped discharging PCBs into the river from its two factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward (the chemical was used as an insulator in the manufacturing of transformers and capacitors), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added nearly 200 miles of the Hudson -- between the Village of Hudson Falls and the Battery in Manhattan -- to its Superfund list of hazardous waste sites. Over the next 19 years, GE lobbied federal and state agencies to avoid the cost of cleaning up the river and ran an expensive and ultimately discredited national public relations campaign to convince the country it was safer to leave the contaminants on the river bottom. Stirring up the sediments, GE falsely claimed, would only harm the river.
Ultimately science prevailed, with successive Republican and Democratic administrations of the EPA concluding that a major cleanup was needed to rid the Hudson of this toxic scourge. In 2003 the Bush Administration's EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, ordered GE to commence a cleanup. Under the EPA plan, GE agreed to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from "hotspots" located along a 40-mile stretch of the river. Yet even then, GE stalled until 2009 to commence the work.
The good news is that GE has almost completed -- a year ahead of schedule -- the cleanup it agreed to perform in 2003. The company plans to start decommissioning the operation next year. The bad news is that scientists and analysts working with federal agencies have determined that unless a broader cleanup of highly toxic sediments is conducted, it will take decades longer for the river to be restored to full health. These agencies, known as the Natural Resource Trustees, have warned GE, the EPA and New York State that 136 acres of sediments are just as contaminated as those GE is cleaning up and should be dredged before the project is concluded. This pollution includes sediments that prevent dredging the river's navigation channel and make it impossible deep-draft cargo shipping in the Champlain Canal.
GE has demonstrated it can clean up targeted pollution more effectively than anyone imagined. Much of the additional PCB contamination lies within 200 feet of areas to be cleaned up under the current EPA plan -- so removing it now, while GE's cleanup equipment is still deployed -- would be more cost-effective. More important, getting rid of these sediments immediately would accelerate the recovery of the Hudson's wildlife and riverfront communities. If GE does the right thing, these communities won't have to wait decades to take advantage of the economic benefits they've been denied by the company's pollution.
GE has publicly taken the position that it has no responsibility for addressing this additional contamination. However, under federal law the polluter not only must clean up its hazardous waste but also compensate the public for the damages to natural resources its contamination caused before cleanup as well as any residual pollution left afterward. For example, GE faces liability for the decades of lost economic benefits of the commercial fishery its contamination destroyed; for the public's inability to eat fish caught in the river; for marinas and boat launches shut down by toxic sediments; and for lost revenues from hunting, trapping and tourism on the river and in communities along its banks. And upstate residents aren't the only ones suffering from the PCBs' lingering presence, contrary to GE's propaganda. Every year, hundreds of pounds of PCBs flow downstream -- all the way to New York Harbor and the ocean beyond -- particularly in the wake of recent "super storms" that are occurring with growing frequency.
GE could reduce these liabilities by extending its cleanup to the 136 acres of contaminated sediments that are now within reach -- while its equipment is deployed on the river. Failing to do so will not only continue to expose the public to the health and environmental threats of its PCBs, but will saddle New York taxpayers with the cost of cleaning up the Champlain Canal's navigation channel. In contrast, completing the dredging now will provide a major boost to New York's upstate economy.
Nationwide, many polluters are addressing natural resource liability during their cleanups -- putting their toxic legacy behind them and allowing the environment and economies of the affected areas to recover more quickly. More than ever, the public expects companies responsible for large-scale toxic disasters to achieve large-scale cleanups. Now is the time for the state and federal agencies responsible for the long-term health of the river to come together to forge an agreement with GE to achieve a clean Hudson. And now is the time for GE to "bring good things to life" in this American Heritage River.