Commentary: Make GE extend Hudson cleanup or pay billions in fines

By Brad Hoylman, Commentary | December 13, 2015 (Times Union)

For much of the 20th century, the mighty Hudson River was a proverbial — and often literal — dumping ground of industrial waste, toxic chemicals and raw sewage. In parts of the lower Hudson, not far downriver from an automobile plant, it was said that you could tell which color the cars on the line were being painted that week by the hue of the water lapping the shoreline.

The rampant pollution of the Hudson hit its peak in the 1960s, coinciding with the rise of the modern environmental movement and the enactment of strong state and federal ecological protections. Today, the painted waters of the Hudson have thankfully vanished, though insidious remnants of the river's toxic legacy remain.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a plan by General Electric to dismantle dredging facilities in Fort Edward. For the past six years, the company had used the facilities to clean up millions of pounds of PCBs — toxic chemicals GE was responsible for dumping into the river for over three decades.

The casual observer can be forgiven for assuming that if the EPA was giving an OK for the dredging facilities to be demobilized, then the federally mandated cleanup must be complete. That's certainly what GE would have the public believe.

In reality, the environmental damage the company caused along a 200-mile length of the Hudson River is far from remedied, and recent studies suggest the extent of the damage may be worse than originally thought.

In May, another federal agency — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — issued an updated analysis which demonstrated that the predictive models the EPA used to set the terms of GE's dredging efforts were flawed. As a result, the EPA significantly underestimated the scope and the efficacy of dredging needed to meet the agency's health and safety targets.

The NOAA analysis warns that the amount of PCBs left in the Upper Hudson River after GE packs up and leaves is likely to be three to five times higher than the EPA initially forecast, while the natural rate of recovery of the river is now expected to take generations longer — an additional 40-50 years.

That would mean decades more of a decimated commercial fishing industry, chemical-laden wildlife, and an increased risk of cancer and other diseases for the millions of New Yorkers who live in communities along the river. All told, a century of damage.

We shouldn't settle for such blatant disregard for our personal health and the environmental well-being of one of our state's greatest natural resources.

While GE is currently dismantling its facilities in Fort Edward, the company still needs certification from the EPA to formally conclude its mandated dredging — a process that could take up to a year. Prior to issuing that certification, the EPA should at a minimum heed the red flags raised by NOAA and others and conduct a formal review of the Hudson River to evaluate the implementation and performance of the dredging efforts, determine how much risk remains to human health and the environment, and expand GE's dredging requirements as necessary.

Even if the federal EPA fails to act, there is still a role for New York state. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is one of three designated trustees — along with NOAA and the U.S. Department of the Interior — charged with evaluating the impact of GE's pollution on the Hudson River in what is known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).

As the sole representative of New York state among the three trustees, DEC should make its voice heard in the fight to ensure New Yorkers get what they are owed for GE's malfeasance. To date, the agency has been largely silent on the issue, even as NOAA and the Department of the Interior have called for GE to continue its dredging until it has restored the natural resources it contaminated.

The NRDA that DEC will help shape will be used to assess the financial compensation GE owes New York for decades of irresponsible PCB dumping. It stands to reason that the less thorough a cleanup the company performs, the more it will ultimately owe. Given the recent $8.8 billion penalty the energy company BP was levied as a result of a NRDA for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it's not unthinkable that GE could face a penalty in the billions of dollars.

That threat should spur the company — and its shareholders — to continue the cleanup effort. Ultimately, the issue is one of basic justice and fairness. GE knowingly polluted the Hudson River for decades, then spent years trying to fight attempts to make them clean it up.

Its intransigence has resulted in untold costs to the river's ecology, our state's economy, and the health of New Yorkers. That the company should be held responsible for fully cleaning up the mess they created is a matter of law, good corporate citizenry, and basic human decency.

The river no longer runs sports car red or pickup truck green to warn us of the contamination man has caused it, but that should not and cannot be enough. New Yorkers must speak with one voice and declare that a century of damage is unacceptable.

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State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, represents New York's 27th Senate District and is the ranking member of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee.


This commentary originally appeared on the Times Union's December 13, 2015 publication: 


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