A 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River, one of America's most beautiful and historic waterways, also is saddled with the dubious distinction of being the country's largest Superfund site.
Behind this designation are the toxic PCBs dumped into the river for over 30 years from two General Electric plants. Though the pollution ended in the 1970s, the chemicals continue poisoning this national treasure, destroying a once-bustling commercial fishery, damaging the health of millions of people and stifling tourism and other economic activity.
Following years of legal and public relations maneuvering, high-powered lobbying and strong-arm negotiating, GE finally agreed to design and implement a plan for removing the PCBs. In May 2009 I stood on the banks of the Hudson with hundreds of government officials and fellow leaders of grassroots organizations that fought decades for the river's cleanup as the first load of contaminated soil was removed. We all celebrated the start of the Hudson's healthy future.
Today that future hangs very much in the balance. In mid-December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the project, will announce how the cleanup will continue most important, whether it will allow GE to knowingly leave behind unacceptably large amounts of these poisons. Earlier this year, an independent panel of scientists determined that the first, exploratory year of dredging, known as Phase 1, was a success. They noted that any glitches could easily be remedied during Phase 2, which should continue without delay.
The EPA's imminent decision will cause waves far beyond the Hudson's banks. In addition to being a make-or-break moment in determining if we get an environmentally and economically vibrant Hudson River, it will set a precedent for whether other polluters of irreplaceable public resources treasured places for all Americans will be allowed to bluster and bully their way out of cleaning up their messes, leaving us taxpayers with footing the bill.
For this reason I'm urging you to write EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Let her know that the EPA must reaffirm that a genuine Hudson River cleanup requires the removal of virtually all PCBs from the river's most contaminated sections, and that her agency must not tolerate shortcuts that allow GE to leave behind huge amounts of toxic waste that can safely be removed. You can contact Ms. Jackson at email@example.com.
From my past experience as Maine's top environmental official and deputy commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, I learned that the success of any toxic cleanup hinges on two things: the commitment of the polluter to undertake the cleanup and a vigorous regulatory agency willing to fight for public health, a clean environment and making the polluter comply with the law.
As far as the Hudson is concerned, GE's commitment has been to avoiding responsibility. Despite the company's boast that "We're taking on the world's toughest environmental challenges," it continues pouring millions of dollars into a PR campaign to justify why it can't clean up the Hudson. At the same time, GE's lobbyists, armed with disinformation and skewed data, are pushing local, county and state officials to urge the EPA to accept the company's self-serving demand for more delays.
GE needs to put the know-how of its vaunted "ecomagination" (not to mention a portion of its $30 billion annual earnings) behind this cleanup. And the EPA needs to stand up and get GE to adhere to federal law a 2005 decision the company signed off on requiring it to restore the river it polluted.
Science shows the cleanup is working. At the same time, we know there's an even greater urgency to continue: The independent panel's findings included the discovery that there are more PCBs in the river than originally thought. This should be the highest priority in shaping future dredging operations.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.