Environmental experts discuss options for PCB cleanup in Nov. 11 forum
By Brian PJ Cronin
It took more than 35 years of activism, community organizing and legal wrangling to get General Electric Co. to begin cleaning up the millions of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) it discharged in the upper Hudson River between 1947 and 1977. Now, with the court-ordered cleanup on track to be completed next year — ahead of schedule — local officials and environmental groups are preparing to put pressure on GE once again.
GE’s responsibility as part of its Hudson River cleanup was the topic of a forum held at the Marist College Boathouse Tuesday night (Nov. 11). The forum was organized by Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and the National Resources Defense Council; it featured speakers from those four environmental groups as well as representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plus numerous elected officials and representatives from area tourism boards and chambers of commerce.
At stake is an additional 136 acres of contaminated river sediment that lies just beyond the area GE has been ordered to clean up, and the future of commercial navigation in the Champlain Canal. Environmental groups contend that restoring those acres now would reduce fish toxicity, improve overall water quality and ensure that future floods would not recontaminate the area GE has already cleaned up.
In addition, years of contaminated sediment buildup within the Champlain Canal have rendered it unusable for commercial navigation. Extensive deep dredging by GE would be necessary to remove the buildup and once again allow large commercial vessels to pass through the canal.
But while there’s no doubt the additional cleanup would be beneficial to communities both upriver and downriver, getting GE to commit to it will be another matter entirely. Walter Mugdan, the EPA’s director of the Division of Environmental Planning and Protection for this region, stated that the EPA will not be requiring GE to undertake any additional dredging in the near future. “I see no reason to imagine that General Electric would do so voluntarily,” he admitted at the forum.
According to Daniel Raichel of the National Resources Defense Council, that leaves three options. “Either GE is going to pay for cleaning up the remaining PCBs in the river, the taxpayers are going to pay for that cleanup or the PCBs are going to just stay in the river,” he told the forum. “I’m not happy with options 2 or 3. When the Superfund program works right, No. 1 happens. But it’s not a guarantee, and that’s why we’re here tonight. That’s why we have to take action.”
Tom Richardson, supervisor of Mechanicville, has seen numerous nearby towns undertake costly civil works projects to protect their wells and water systems from PCB infiltrations. His assessment of the options on the table was blunt: “If option No. 2 came about, and the taxpayers had to pay, let me just say this up front: We in Mechanicville, we’re not paying.”
For years, GE stalled the cleanup and restoration process by claiming that the PCBs weren’t harmful, that they would degrade naturally and that dredging operations would hurt the river more than help it. Once those claims were disproven, it brought the entire Superfund program to court on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. Based on this contentious history, it seems like a long shot that GE would be amicable to additional cleanup. But the panelists suggested that although further cleanup is not required, it may be in GE’s best financial interest.
Cleaning the river is only one part of GE’s responsibility under the Superfund law. The second part involves compensating the public, through a program known as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), for damages and losses of service as a result of the decades of pollution.
Calculating the amount of the NRD is a years-long process that won’t be over any time soon, but considering the considerable amount of damage done to the ecological health of the river — not to mention the decimation of the river’s commercial fishing industry, tourism industry, marinas and the aforementioned contamination of water wells — the final amount is expected to be quite high. The panel contends that taking on the additional work now would be a cost-effective way of reducing the NRD determination later.
It would also be a more efficient way of removing the remaining PCBs from the river than GE simply cutting a check to the state. Once GE finishes its required dredging next year, it’s expected to either shut down or dismantle the considerable amount of riverside infrastructure it built as part of the restoration process, thus hindering any future restoration work.
“If GE writes a check based on how much it would cost them to clean up those acres and gives it to the state,” said Raichel in an interview with The Paper after the forum, “can the state do the same cleanup for the same cost? This is not a dig at the state. GE is a really sophisticated company. They do these kinds of incredible engineering projects all over the world. They know how to run these sorts of cleanups more so than anyone else. Could the state do as good as job, as efficiently and quickly? Probably not.”
GE continues to contend that it is the state’s responsibility to maintain the canal, even while it has agreed to undertake further study of how PCB contamination has affected the Hudson River shoreline. But the environmental groups represented at the forum maintain that now is the time for action, while the infrastructure is in place, in order to accelerate the rehabilitation of the river. And they’re asking the public to join them in calling on GE to continue the cleanup.
“We have a lot at stake,” said Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper. “All the recovery that the river has undergone in terms of economic opportunities, quality of life, tourism, is all at risk if this last piece of puzzle isn’t put into place.”