Nation's Water, Air and Health at Stake in Whether EPA Completes Hudson River Cleanup

02/26/2016 04:23 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Lead poisons drinking water in Flint, Michigan... Dangerous levels of perfluorooctanoic acid contaminate water supplies in Hoosick Falls, New York... A massive spill of wastewater from the Gold King Mine pollutes Colorado's Animas River...

These recent disasters impacting water quality have made headlines nationwide. They share something else as well. All came about because of the failure of public agencies charged with protecting human health and the environment to respond in a timely manner and do their jobs.

Like never before, the performance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been called into question, even as its leaders scurry to these sites and defend their actions--too-late-to-the-game solutions that leave local residents concerned for their future and the American public losing faith in the government's ability to keep them safe.

You can add the Hudson River to this list of EPA failures and dashed hopes. In 2002, after a decades-long battle, the EPA mandated that General Electric (GE) commit to cleaning up polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)--a known human carcinogen--it had dumped in the upper Hudson River over a 30-year span. The cleanup began with much celebration and high expectations in 2009. Environmental advocates had reason to hope that advisories against consuming the river's poisoned fish would be lifted within our lifetimes.

While great progress was made based on the original cleanup plan, the EPA failed to modify the project's scope to accommodate information learned after the plan was developed. The EPA also disregarded warnings and new analysis from other federal agencies about the impacts that leftover contamination would have on achieving the cleanup's goals.

Despite overwhelming evidence proving the need for a more extensive cleanup, the EPA ignored the science and refused calls by these federal agencies, environmental groups and local communities to demand more dredging. Instead, it allowed GE to shut down its cleanup operations last fall--even before the EPA deemed the project complete. As a result, the Hudson's fish will remain unsafe to eat for generations. This federal inaction and corporate shortsightedness also will squander opportunities to revive a once-vibrant commercial fishing industry and other economic development plans along a 200-mile stretch of river.

Perhaps most distressing, it will continue imperiling the health of anyone who lives along the Hudson. Studies by Dr. David Carpenter, a respected public health physician at the University at Albany, has linked exposure to volatile PCBs to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, learning disabilities and other maladies among people who live in Hudson Riverfront communities.

The long struggle to remove PCBs from the Hudson--the nation's largest Superfund site--is a bellwether. The fate of cleanups at hundreds of other Superfund sites depends on its outcome. In fact, it's long been suspected that one of the motivations behind all the money and time GE spent to delay and undermine this cleanup has been the costs it will incur at its other Superfund sites around the country if this cleanup succeeds. If our country wants clean water, healthy wildlife and restored public trust, there's a precedent to be set on the Hudson.

At the moment, there's little cause for optimism. In January, the Albany Times Union published an op-ed by EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, who approved GE's premature retreat from the river. In it she passed the buck, suggesting New York State assume financial and oversight responsibility for any future work to restore the river. Even more outrageous, Enck declared the cleanup a success, calling into doubt the agency's resolve to conduct an evenhanded, science-based five-year review of the project required under Superfund law. After all, how can you claim victory before knowing all the facts about the cleanup's effectiveness?

With so much at stake, it's not surprising that more than 80 municipalities, 161 state legislators and numerous Hudson Valley editorial boards called on GE last summer to remove more contamination. Their calls went unheeded, by the company and the EPA. Yet the battle is far from over. Recently, two political leaders--U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson and Sean Patrick Maloney, whose constituents are affected by the EPA's inaction--submitted questions about the state of the Hudson during a Congressional hearing with EPA Chief Administrator Gina McCarthy.

It's time for New York State to join the fray by calling for the EPA to exert its authority and finish the job. The economic, environmental and public health costs to the state and its citizens from an incomplete cleanup would be enormous. Until the EPA owns up to its blunders and takes this step, the future of this American Heritage River and all who live along it--and perhaps anyone living near a Superfund site anywhere in America--will continue to be compromised.