On two fronts, Monday, June 6, was a momentous day in the history of New York's Hudson Riverand a hopeful one in terms of its future. For starters, it marked the beginning of Phase 2 of General Electric Corp.'s PCB cleanup. This massive undertaking will remove millions of tons of these toxins located in "hotspots" around and downriver from two upstate manufacturing plants where GE had dumped the chemicals for three decades, ending in the mid-70s.
Two years ago I wrote about how GE had commenced Phase 1 of this project, which is being overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The initial phase was basically a test to see if removing the chemicals from the riverbed via dredging was feasible and, more important, would result in a healthier Hudson. An independent panel of scientists that reviewed the results declared that GE's methods for extracting the PCB-laden silt were successful on both counts, and that Phase 2a full-scale cleanupshould commence as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the data also revealed that the level of PCBs in the river is far greater than expected.
For a quarter century, environmental groups, including Scenic Hudson, have been crusading to compel GE to remove these toxins that made the Hudson America's most PCB-polluted waterway and our nation's largest Superfund site. PCBs 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.
Over that same period, GE has spent more than $60 million on a battalion of lawyers, lobbyists and public relations specialists in efforts to evade its responsibility for this mess it created. True to form, GE disputed the scientists' Phase 1 findings, instead urging a delay and curtailment of the project's overall scope. Finally, last December it agreed to resume dredging this season, but only after winning concessions from the EPA that compromise the effectiveness of the cleanup. Still, the remediation will prove vastly beneficial to wildlife in the river and on its banks, and create opportunities for future economic benefits in communities along its shores. (The project itself has brought 500 jobs to communities surrounding the cleanup.)
This is a great news, but it's far too early to let down our guard. During Phase 2 it's critical for the EPA to be vigilant in ensuring GE removes the maximum volume of PCBs, while limiting releases of these toxins into the river and air. Comprehensive monitoring during the cleanup, to collect high-quality scientific data, is crucial to provide the basis for fine-tuning dredging techniques during the project. The EPA is responsible for mandating such adjustments as needed to maximize PCB removal and minimize the amount left behind under so-called "caps." Now also is the time to address concerns state and federal natural resource agencies have raised that the dredging may be too narrowly focused to capture all of the PCB hotspots.
Also on June 6 the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a great environmental victory. For a decade GE has been challenging the constitutionality of a key portion of the federal Superfund law that gives the EPA the power to order companies to clean up hazardous waste sites. GE has argued that the law violates corporations' rights because it denies them a chance to contest the cleanup orders prior to their issuance. Judges in several lower federal courts have sided with the Justice Department, which contends that companies are offered numerous chances to state their case to the EPA before it orders a cleanup. (In 2001 Scenic Hudson and several partner environmental organizations fighting for the Hudson's cleanup filed a "friend of the court" brief urging the suit's dismissal.)
Last December GE filed a writ with the Supreme Courtits court of last resortasking it to review the earlier decisions. The same day GE resumed dredging the Hudson, the Supreme Court announced that it won't take up the case.
It's not surprising GE was hot to continue appealing: In its decision unanimously rejecting the company's argument last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit noted that GE has received at least 68 unilateral administrative orders (as the EPA cleanup orders are called) and was currently involved in 79 cleanup actionsincluding the Hudson River Superfund sitewhere such orders may be issued. These sites are located all across the United States, and make GE one of the country's biggest polluters.
GE also is the nation's largest corporation, raking in $14.2 billion in worldwide profits last year (incidentally, it didn't pay a cent in federal taxes, instead receiving a $3.2-billion refund). Now it's time for GE to put this money to work in the river and on the ground to secure a healthy future for all Americans. And if they and other companies prove recalcitrant, the Supreme Court has guaranteed that the EPA will retain its full powers to enforce cleanups.
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