Media nationwide -- including The Daily Green -- reported on the May 15 ceremony near the small upstate New York village of Fort Edward marking the start of General Electric's cleanup of PCBs it had dumped in the Hudson River. One speaker at the event rightly called it "a historic day for a historic river."
It was a particularly satisfying moment for environmental groups in the Hudson Valley -- including Scenic Hudson, which I head. We've been crusading for a quarter century to compel GE to remove these 1.3 million pounds of toxins that made the Hudson the most PCB-polluted waterway in America. Polychlorinated biphenyls not only have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and immune-system disorders in humans, but adversely affect fish, forcing New York State to close or impose severe restrictions on lucrative recreational and commercial fisheries all the way to New York Harbor, 200 miles downriver.
While this is a great victory, it's far from complete. GE has committed itself only to the first phase of the cleanup, during which 22 tons of PCBs will be dredged from "hot spots" around Fort Edward and nearby Hudson Falls, where GE plants discharged the chemicals (used to make capacitors) from 1946 to 1976. A GE spokesman calls this a "full-scale test" of whether the dredging technology can meet the performance standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is overseeing the project. (The second phase calls for removing 102 additional tons of PCBs along a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson to the city of Troy.)
While there is some cause for optimism that GE will carry through with the project -- after all, it has spent $620 million on a state-of-the-art facility to process PCB-laden river sediment -- the company's track record leaves considerable room for doubt. Over the last 30 years, it has spent more than $60 million on a battalion of lawyers, lobbyists and public relations consultants in an effort to stall or even derail the cleanup. Today, it continues its long court battle challenging the constitutionality of the nation's landmark 1980 Superfund law, which gives the EPA the right to order recalcitrant companies to clean up their hazardous wastes and levy hefty penalties against them. If GE decides to halt work on the Hudson or prevails in its court fight, further dredging could be delayed for years, if not decades.
General Electric prides itself on being environmentally friendly, as evidenced by the widespread ad campaign touting its "ecomagination." GE's Web site states it is "helping to solve the world's biggest environmental challenges." It should put its money where its mouth is -- by ending 30 years of combat with the government and environmental community and committing itself 100 percent to the challenge of cleaning up the PCBs that turned this majestic and once-vital river into one of America's largest Superfund sites.
Moving forward with dredging, which scientists maintain is the safest and surest way of restoring the Hudson's ecological health, not only will immeasurably benefit the environment, but will furnish much-needed jobs in a region hard hit by the economy. Right now, 500 employees are working on the project. Ensuring a river that's safe to swim and fish in also would provide a lasting legacy of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage of discovery on this waterway, which we're celebrating this year.
For a company that prides itself so much on being an environmental and economic leader -- and just happened to be founded 20 miles from the banks of the Hudson River -- this sounds like a no-brainer to me. Let's hope GE is enlightened, if you'll pardon the pun, to move full speed ahead.
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