Battle to Remove PCBs Heads Down River to Beacon

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Newly formed coalition vows to take on General Electric

By Brian PJ Cronin

This fall, General Electric is scheduled to complete its court-ordered cleanup of the upper Hudson River, two years ahead of schedule. By then, GE will have removed more than 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Over a 30-year period, at GE’s two plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that over 1.3 million pounds of PCBs were dumped into the Hudson River.

But while the cleanup will satisfy the demands of the EPA’s 2009 Superfund ruling, many local environmental groups and elected officials have said that it’s not enough. They’ve estimated that the court-ordered cleanup will only remove about 65 percent of the PCBs in the river. They’ve pointed out that contaminated sediment buildup has rendered the Champlain Canal unusable for commercial navigation. They’ve claimed that the remaining PCBs will continue to require severe restrictions on subsistence fishing — as of now, the New York State Department of Health recommends that only healthy adult males should eat what they catch in the Hudson, and even then only once a month — for generations to come. And with GE expected to dismantle its sophisticated dredging equipment and cleanup infrastructure in the fall, their voices are growing louder.

With time running out, many of these groups — including Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, Clearwater and the Natural Resources Defense Council — have formed a coalition called Campaign for a Cleaner Hudson. At an April 15 press conference on the shores of the river at Beacon’s Long Dock Park, they stated their case as to why GE should continue dredging the river and what the benefits of the additional work would be.

Beacon Mayor Randy Casale recalled when the very site where the conference was taking place was a contaminated industrial site before Scenic Hudson cleaned it up and transformed it into a park.

Beacon Mayor Randy Casale speaks at the Campaign for a Cleaner Hudson press conference at Long Dock Park on April 15. Photo by B. Cronin

Beacon Mayor Randy Casale speaks at the Campaign for a Cleaner Hudson press conference at Long Dock Park on April 15.

“I’ve lived in this city since it was an industrial community, and that was our economic engine,” he said. “Today, our economic engine is tourism. And with a cleaner river, and a better river, we’ll be able to fully use the natural resources that we have in this community and keep our economic engines running.”

At question is an additional 136 acres of contaminated river sediment, including the buildup at the bottom of the Champlain Canal. The canal buildup is so significant that heavy commercial boats are forbidden from navigating the canal for fear of disturbing contaminated sediment. Because no other company or government agency has the capacity or expertise to clean up the river as well as GE can, the coalition fears that once GE dismantles its infrastructure and leaves the river, an opportunity to improve the long-term health of the river will be lost.

“GE can do in one summer what the [New York State] Canal Corp. said it would take them eight to 10 years to do,” said Althea Mullarkey, a public policy analyst for Scenic Hudson.

Gil Hawkins, president of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, argued that although GE may be on the verge of satisfying its federal responsibilities, it still needs to consider its corporate responsibilities.

Gil Hawkins, president of the Hudson Valley Fishermen's Association, speaks at the Campaign for a Cleaner Hudson press conference on April 15 in Beacon.

Gil Hawkins, president of the Hudson Valley Fishermen’s Association, speaks at the Campaign for a Cleaner Hudson press conference on April 15 in Beacon.

“The river’s not clean,” he said. “It’s cleaner. But it’s not clean. So what does GE want to be remembered for? I think GE would probably want to be remembered as the company that cleaned up the river. Not the one that left it half clean. We all know where it came from. So what is GE’s legacy? The Hudson River is a national river. If GE does not finish the job, it will open the door for all the polluters across this country to say, ‘We only have to do this much, and that’s all.’”

Ironically, GE may not have a choice in the matter. While it completes its EPA-mandated cleanup, they’ll also have to compensate the public for damages and losses of service as a result of the decades of pollution through a program known as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. The final tally for the NRD is still being calculated, but as Mullarkey told The Paper, the only NRD assessment larger in scope than the current one being undertaken in the Hudson was the one to assess BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The price tag for that payout? $25 billion. The coalition argues that any additional work that GE does now will be a cost-effective way to reduce the price tag of the NRD later.

One way or another, GE will have to pay. “This isn’t something they should do just to be nice people,” said Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper. “We don’t care if they’re nice people. This is something they need to do in order to satisfy the law.”

But if the amount of NRD is astronomical, GE could choose to fight it. And no one wants to drag them back to court for another lengthy legal battle, like the one that held up the beginning of the cleanup for decades.

“I think similar to what has happened in the past, GE doesn’t respond to anything unless their credibility is being questioned,” Mullarkey told The Paper after the press conference. “They do respond to criticism if it’s widespread. They do respond to public pressure and political pressure. That can’t happen unless we shine the light on this.”

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The coalition is planning a series of events to draw the public’s attention to the river cleanup all summer long. Judging by the synergy emanating from Long Dock that morning with so many local environmental leaders in the same place at the same time, they shouldn’t have any problem coming up with ideas.

Mullarkey called to Peter Gross, executive director of Clearwater, as he wandered by: “When is the Sloop Clearwater going to come sailing up the river with a big sign that says ‘GE: Do the Right Thing?’ Because that’s what we need next.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Gross with a smile. “Let me work on that.”

The Paper reached out to GE for their comment on this story. As of press time, they had not responded.

Photos by B. Cronin

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