For decades, a lot of electrical equipment contained chemicals known as PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- because they didn’t burn easily, and could act as insulation. But some 30 years ago, scientists learned that even a small amount of these chemicals could be harmful to people and other living things, such as waterways.
By that time, General Electric had been dumping PCBs into the Hudson River upstate for many years, turning 200 miles of the 315-mile-long body of water into a hazardous waste site.
"About 50 percent of PCBs in New York Harbor come from General Electric PCBs upstream," says Rich Schiafo of the environmental group Scenic Hudson.
GE stopped dumping the chemicals into the river way back in the 1970s, but for a long time, the company resisted getting rid of the PCBs that were already there, arguing that dredging them up would just make things worse.
The company also argued that it shouldn't bear the brunt of the very expensive cleanup when it didn't knowingly dump a dangerous substance into the water. However, the river falls under the federal Superfund law, which holds companies responsible for cleanups even when the discharges were legal.
After much legal wrangling, in October of this year, General Electric finally agreed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency on a clean-up plan.
Many environmentalists were not happy with the plan. Neither were some state officials; the State Attorney General’s Office found the plan inadequate, an assessment with which General Electric disagrees. But now, it turns out, at least one federal expert wasn’t happy with the plan either.
PCBs in the City
Even today, some 30 years after dumping of the chemicals ended, some 500 pounds of PCBs spill over the dam at Troy every year, contaminating wildlife and people who eat fish as far downstream as New York City.
The compound is a probable carcinogen and can damage neurological, immune and reproductive systems. PCBs have recently been linked to Parkinson's, type-2 diabetes, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The pollutant does not break down much over time, but it can easily spread through waterways.
Advisories warn pregnant women and children not to eat any fish out of the river. And river watchers caution everyone to avoid eating bottom feeders from the river. But warnings do not stop consumption of fish, says Robert Goldstein, senior attorney at the environmental group Riverkeeper, because some people have no other way of feeding their families.
There's an economic impact on New York City's infrastructure, too. It takes dredging to maintain the waterways, but it's costly and difficult to dispose of contaminated sediment. While New York waterways have been getting cleaner, the presence of the PCBs from the Hudson hampers the progress toward a healthy ecosystem.
A Criticized Plan
The first phase of the current plan begins in the spring of 2007, when General Electric has agreed to dredge 10 percent of the PCBs. But in a later phase, they may be able to avoid further dredging, instead capping a large area with a layer of fill. Some experts say the cap won't hold the PCBs down, that storms and even boat propellers in shallow areas will stir up the new layer, exposing and releasing PCBs into the river. More worrisome to activists is an opt-out section of the plan that could allow General Electric to do nothing at all after the first phase.
General Electric has argued in the past that dredging will actually stir up more PCBs, making the situation worse, a contention that environmentalists say has been disproven by studies of dredging projects in other states.
But now General Electric has ceased arguing and has agreed to the initial dredging, with promises to follow through with the second phase. In fact, a spokesman said, they will be undertaking the largest dredging project in the nation's history.
The Leaked Memo
A leaked confidential memo from an expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the agreement General Electric reached with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice announced in October is inadequate -- the same conclusion voiced by environmental groups and the state attorney general's office. The memo was given to Robert Goldstein of Riverkeeper, who released it to the press. Goldstein believes that the only reason the Environmental Protection Agency would have for not releasing itself the document is that the report found the proposed cleanup wanting. "It's very suspicious," he says. "This is not some wacky wayward employee.”
The Environmental Protection Agency told the Westchester Journal-News there was no cover-up, but that the memo was "part of internal communications between consulting agencies." A spokesman also told the paper that capping would be used only after other efforts did not reduce the PCBs.
Still, critics are concerned. If the plan proceeds as now written, Goldstein proclaims, it will lead to "General Electric having the remedy which it initially proposed, which is leaving the river alone and letting it recover itself.”