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Time for GE to Commit to Finish Cleaning Up Its Pollution in the Hudson

Frances Beinecke

Posted September 8, 2010 in Curbing Pollution

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A few weeks ago, a panel of independent scientific experts convened by EPA and GE released a draft report on GE's cleanup of dangerous PCBs in the Hudson River—and its final report is due out this Friday.  

As a recent New York Times editorial explained, the report identified some ways to improve on the first phase of the cleanup, but the prevailing takeaway from Phase 1 was that a successful cleanup is possible: GE can and must move forward.

By applying lessons learned so far, GE can successfully clean up its mess and finally return a healthier Hudson River to millions of area residents. But in order to accomplish this, the next phase of the project must move forward with speed and scientific credibility.

If GE starts dragging its heels now, we will lose the momentum achieved over the past 18 months. I hope instead that GE makes a public commitment this year to start—and finish—Phase II of the clean up.

We agree that it should be based on sound science, and encourage them to work with the EPA to use it to guide their work in the second phase. But there's no need to delay the process any longer.

I live on the banks of the Hudson, and I have been a daily observer of the river's health for decades. I have watched as the water quality has improved tremendously-with one enormous exception: PCBs.

Just last Sunday, I was riding my bike along the river, when I watched a man pull out a blue crab at 158th Street. The fact that blue crabs are rebounding in the river is a sign water quality has gotten better. But at the same time, I couldn't help wonder what the PCB toxicity levels were in the crab. I know I wouldn't want to eat it.

GE dumped these toxins in the Hudson decades ago, and then spent decades arguing that it couldn't clean them up. And remarkably GE is still fighting in the courts to weaken the EPA’s enforcement authority to ensure a full cleanup under federal law.

But the New York environmental community, led by NRDC, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, and Clearwater exposed the holes in GE's claims and continued to hold the company's feet to the fire.

And in 2002, the EPA issued a landmark decision that spurred GE to create a plan to remove its toxic mess from the river. Cleanup was supposed to begin in 2005, but GE kept asking for delays. Finally, under the leadership of CEO Jeff Immelt, the company started to take its debt to the Hudson more seriously; it launched Phase I of the cleanup in 2009.

The new draft report—by a peer review panel composed of independent scientists—indicates that while there have been some problems with Phase I, Phase II should proceed with appropriate adjustments, based on good data and sound science.   

But here is the challenge: while a 2006 federal court consent decree required GE to do Phase I, it allows GE to opt out of Phase II—leaving untold amounts of PCBs and toxic sediment still contaminating the river, until EPA finds another means of conducting the cleanup and, ultimately, holding GE liable for the full costs of cleaning up its mess.

At this critical stage, it is essential that GE make a firm, public commitment that it will begin Phase II without delay—in spring of 2011 as originally planned.

New data and peer review recommendations can be factored into the design going forward, after another dredging season, but the public should have no question about GE’s commitment to do the work, and to stick with it until the job is done.

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Comments

Ann KleeSep 9 2010 10:37 AM

From Ann Klee, GE

Vice President, Corporate Environmental Programs

We admire and share Frances Beinecke's commitment to a cleaner Hudson River. But we would reach that goal along slightly different routes.

Ms. Beinecke wants EPA to make a final decision on the size, scope and requirements for the second phase of the Hudson River dredging project this fall. She also wants GE to make a commitment this fall to perform whatever project EPA requires. The problem, recognized in the recent report by a panel of independent scientists, is that EPA does not yet have the information to establish the final standards governing Phase 2, nor the information to decide the final scope of Phase 2. Therefore, GE does not have the information needed to make an informed decision.

This need not be an obstacle to progress.

Dredging -- meaningful cleanup progress -- can and should continue as GE and EPA gather the information necessary to determine the final scope and requirements for Phase 2. GE has offered to EPA to conduct a full season of dredging in 2011 to help close this information gap, as was recommended by the independent scientists. The scientists recommended more dredging and data collection to determine if process changes can reduce the quantity of PCBs that dredging resuspends and sends downstream.

The peer review panel found that none of the performance standards governing the first phase of the project were met or could be met and recommended that new standards be established, based on the collection and analysis of these and other data. They said a quantitative model should be collaboratively developed by EPA and GE to help set a limit on the quantity of PCBs that dredging releases. They said the productivity requirement for the project, which governs the pace of dredging, should be subordinated to the other requirements -- low resuspension and low residuals (the quantity of PCBs left on the surface of sediments after dredging).

We agree with the independent scientists' conclusions and have already begun the research they recommended.

The problems in the first phase of dredging – particulary the much higher-than-anticipated levels of resuspension, the lower productivity, the inefficiencies related to an unachievable residual standard -- existed, in large part, because there were insufficient data on which to base the standards. Now, we have data and experience we can't and should not ignore -- and the opportunity to improve dredging, reduce the downstream impacts and make the project more effective. Plus, we have a panel of independent scientists unanimously recommending this very approach.

We should accept their guidance, collect the information -- and continue dredging in 2011. Then, next fall, when EPA, GE and the public have all the data, there will be sound scientific basis on which to make final decisions for Phase 2. With this approach, no time is lost. Dredging continues while additional research is conducted.

GE made a commitment eight years ago to cooperate with EPA on this project. We repeat that commitment. Thus far, GE has invested more than $830 million in Hudson River cleanup and research, including more than $560 million on the first phase of dredging. We believe a major dredging project can be safely and effectively undertaken in Phase 2, but its scope and standards must not be decided "on the fly." They should be based on the very best and most reliable information available.

Larry Levine, NRDC Senior AttySep 15 2010 06:09 PM

We're glad to see GE engaging in a public debate on this critical issue. I've just posted a new blog explaining why they're off-the-mark:

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/llevine/no_more_delay_tactics_time_for.html

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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