Pulling out of last-minute negotiations for a compromise solution, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman announced on August 1 the agency would require the General Electric Company to pay over half a billion dollars to dredge a 37-mile stretch of the Hudson River for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
The decision was made despite scientific evidence showing the river is healthy and had already cleaned itself of a vast majority of PCBs, deposited by GE at a time when such deposits were lawful.
Proponents of the dredging claimed a significant victory and immediately set their sights on requiring still larger PCB dredging projects in other parts of the country. The decision is unprecedented in scope and creates the largest and most expensive Superfund site in the nation.
History of PCBs in the Hudson
In 1947, GE began using PCBs to insulate electric capacitors in a way that prevented them from catching fire. As a result of this safety advance, PCBs were considered “miracle chemicals” and were instrumental in allowing electric companies to provide safe power to suburban and rural Americans.
GE operated plants in Port Edward and Hudson Falls, New York, both on the upper Hudson River north of Albany, that discharged PCBs into the river. At the time, there was no scientific evidence that PCBs were harmful, and GE discharged the chemicals in accordance with federal and state environmental laws.
By 1977, however, studies of laboratory animals injected with excessive and prolonged doses of PCBs indicated high PCB levels could cause animals to develop cancer. EPA banned the chemical that year and GE has abided by the directive.
Since 1977, GE has spent more than $200 million to clean up the river. The river itself has deposited multiple layers of clean sediment on top of the pre-1977 tainted sediment.
In 1984, EPA conducted a study of PCB levels in the Hudson River and decided that, in conjunction with GE’s cleanup efforts, the river had significantly entombed PCBs under fresh sedimentation and no further action was required to clean the river. Moreover, the agency was worried dredging might make matters worse by stirring up the PCBs that had already been entombed.
Despite its 1984 findings, EPA decided in 1991 to reexamine PCBs in the Hudson River. The agency studied the issue in the last year of the Bush administration and throughout the Clinton administration.
In 2000, the agency determined that natural sedimentation and GE’s cleanup efforts had reduced PCB levels to 90 percent below 1977 levels. Indeed, the river had recovered so much that EPA declared the Hudson safe for swimming, wading, and boating, and even approved it as a source for drinking water.
Recreational fishing in the Hudson is allowed by EPA, though commercial fishing is banned. Even so, PCB levels in downstream largemouth bass, a favorite commercial fishing catch, fall within EPA’s designated safety parameters, leading many to call for a repeal of the commercial fishing ban.
Current science regarding PCBs
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, noted in its February 1999 toxicological profile that “No studies were located regarding death in humans after exposure to PCBs by any route. . . . The acute lethality data do not suggest that PCBs would be acutely toxic in humans.” The study additionally concluded, “The weight of evidence does not support a causal association for PCBs and human cancer at this time.”
In March 1999, Dr. Renate Kimbrough and Dr. Martha Doemland published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine the results of their study of over 7,000 people in upstate New York who were exposed to high levels of PCBs over an extended period, including many who were exposed for over 30 years. Although many participants had PCB blood levels up to a thousand times higher than the national average, cancer mortality rates for the 7,000 people exposed to prolonged and heightened levels of PCBs were significantly lower than the national and regional averages. The study uncovered similar results for each of numerous other diseases studied.
Such studies are in addition to studies by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, all of which note a lack of correlation between PCBs and cancer in humans.
Clinton EPA takes action
Despite the scientific data, the Clinton EPA announced in December 2000, just before President Clinton left office, that it had decided to make GE pay an estimated $460 million (third-party estimates put the total at over a half-billion) to dredge a 37-mile stretch of the Hudson River near its Port Edward and Hudson Falls plants. Of the estimated 1.1 million pounds of PCBs originally deposited by GE, the Clinton plan targeted the 100,000 remaining pounds entombed under layers of sediment at the river’s bottom.
Research shows the entombed PCBs are already so thoroughly buried there is little to no interaction of entombed PCBs with the river and its life, regardless of whether PCBs are actually harmful or not–thus the health of the river. Moreover, the PCBs become more deeply buried every day as more and more clean sediments settle on the riverbed.
Nevertheless, anti-industry environmentalists argue even trace amounts of PCBs should not be tolerated. Moreover, they contend a “100-year flood” might cause a disturbance of the riverbed before the PCBs are further entombed. Experts disagree.
Computer models developed by Quantitative Environmental Analysis, described as “probably the most accurate and predictive model available, not only on the Hudson, but on any water body in the country” by UC Santa Barbara professor Dr. Wilbert Lick, show little chance of significant disturbance even during a hypothetical “100-year flood.”
“Just not conscionable”
Although the Hudson has extensively cleaned itself by natural sedimentary processes, dredging critics argue the dredging process poses a certainty of environmental disturbance and related harms.
To process the dredged sediment, “At least two new hazardous waste plants would be built on the river or its banks to process the PCBs, and an estimated 45,000 tons of waste a day would be hauled out to nonexistent landfills (sure to be opposed by the same Not In My Backyard enviros that created this mess),” observed columnist Michelle Malkin in the Washington Times.
“The EPA project would also destroy 97 acres of prime aquatic habitat, killing or displacing all the creatures that live there, and destabilize or destroy 17 miles of Hudson River shoreline,” Malkin added.
Stated Upper Hudson River Valley Business Council President Daniel Walsh, “this massive disruption would be a grossly, even irrationally disproportionate assault on a ‘threat’ that seems to us to have been mischaracterized and exaggerated–one that is already being addressed with effective, much less risky strategies.”
Walsh warned that dry-land PCB dumps would require substantial community investment and political backing, “yet even far smaller such facilities are almost impossible to develop and get approved.”
“EPA itself has acknowledged that the river is safe to swim in, to boat in, to drink,” Walsh added. “Yet sedimentation would be stopped dead in its tracks (indeed, it would be reversed) by dredging.”
Tim Havens, director of Citizen Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation, an organization of local homeowners, explained that people living in the Upper Hudson River Valley oppose the noise, disruption, and negative environmental impact of countless dump trucks depositing contaminated mud in onshore landfills throughout the region. “We aren’t giving an inch,” stated Havens. “We’ll fight this idea until Hell freezes over, and then we’re going to fight on the ice.”
“A lot of people in New York City want this [dredging], but they’re 200 miles away,” Havens said. “In this part of the world, we don’t believe that you should be saving the Earth at the expense of those who live here.”
Merrilyn Pulver, Port Edward town supervisor, fears the years of daily dredging on the river, the constant commotion and congestion of the trucks, and the disturbance of tons of stinking sludge will cause the death of her town. “When all the hype is done and the enviros are finished scaring us, there’s no benefit in stirring up the river bottom,” she said.
Pulver noted even EPA scientists have acknowledged dredging could actually double the river’s PCB levels for an extended period, and that the end result may still leave many of the PCBs in place. Worse, notes Pulver, the remaining PCBs will no longer be entombed.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” stated Pulver. “For EPA to destroy this town for a dredging project of questionable worth is just not conscionable.”
Whitman rejects compromise solution
Bush administration sources indicated that prior to announcing her decision, Whitman was very close to reaching an agreement with GE for the company to pay for dredging the most noteworthy “hot spots” while allowing other areas of the river to naturally entomb the sedimentation.
“Can you do the kind of dredging that’s proposed and not stir up the sediment in a way that will exacerbate the problem?” wondered Whitman. “They have certainly persuaded a number of people upriver,” noted Whitman prior to reaching her decision, acknowledging the majority of Upper Hudson River Valley residents who oppose dredging.
However, Whitman abruptly called off the talks after anti-market environmentalists clamored about the rumored agreement. “We’re staying the course,” said a senior EPA official after the announcement. “It’s time to move on, and we’re committed to cleaning up the river.”
New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno warned EPA “has made the wrong decision to proceed with a full-scale dredging of the Hudson River. EPA’s decision was based on the recommendations of the previous administration, which relied more on politics than sound science and flew in the face of previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican, that rejected dredging PCBs from the Hudson River.”
“By going forward with dredging, it is clear the EPA did not take into consideration any of the comments made by the people who live along the river, have seen it come back and oppose dredging. Their lives are going to be the ones most affected by dredging and it’s a slap in the face that EPA obviously did not listen to their concerns,” added Bruno.
Observed U.S. Representative John Sweeney, who represents the Upper Hudson River Valley, “The EPA under Administrator Whitman has displayed a colossal lack of responsibility by leaking their proposed dredging plan to the press even before informing the residents of New York’s 22nd Congressional District who are most adversely affected by it.”
“This embarrassing display,” he continued, “is indicative of the EPA’s entire approach throughout their history–an approach rife with ineptitude, callousness, and chaos. The EPA and Administrator Whitman have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear on the people of the Upper Hudson River region.”
“As you know, we were nearing consensus on an alternate plan,” Sweeney further admonished Administrator Whitman.
The Intercounty Legislative Committee of the Adirondacks, representing 11 counties in the Upper Hudson River Valley, had earlier voted to oppose dredging. Noted Committeeman Donald Cummings, “This resolution provides a crystal clear message from elected officials representing more than 700,000 people. We want the Environmental Protection Agency to hear the voices of the people who live and work near the river and would suffer the consequences of a dredging project.”
Business Council President Daniel Walsh agreed. “There are voices in our society whose approach to these matters seems to be motivated more by vengefulness than by sound science–and these voices are calling upon you to order dredging, regardless of the cost or consequences. To them, big corporations like GE are evil polluters, who must be punished,” even though science indicated no environmental risks at the time GE lawfully used and deposited PCBs.
“This is a tremendous environmental victory,” countered the Sierra Club’s Chris Ballantyne. “A massive corporation has been very reluctant to accept its responsibility.”
Replied syndicated columnist Malkin, “The administration’s latest junk science decision should cause Bush supporters to wonder: Is Al Gore secretly manning the EPA?”