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After 30 years of struggle, it seemed that the concerns of local people had finally triumphed over corporate interests in one of the signature battles of the modern environmental movement -- the fight to remove toxic PCBs from New York's Hudson River. In 2002 a landmark EPA decision spurred General Electric, the company that had dumped as many as 1.3 million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs into the Hudson, to create a plan to remove its toxic mess from the river. This historic victory is now tinged with uncertainty, as the EPA and GE have reached a settlement that allows the company to back out after removing only 10 percent of the contaminated sediment targeted for removal, leaving the remainder of the cleanup in doubt.

PCBs are still leaching into the Hudson from GE's Hudson Falls plant.

PCBs are still leaching into the Hudson from GE's Hudson Falls plant.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, the cancer-causing chemicals commonly known as PCBs, were used in a number of industrial processes until the federal government banned them in 1977. PCBs have been linked to reproductive problems and developmental disorders as well as cancer. Humans are exposed to PCBs primarily through eating contaminated fish. Once consumed, PCBs remain in the body, accumulating in fatty tissues.

From 1947 to 1977, GE dumped as many as 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson, turning a 197-mile stretch of the river into the nation's largest Superfund site. Even today, PCBs still leak into the river from GE's Hudson Falls plant. Under Superfund law, polluters are responsible for cleaning up the messes they make. Yet for years, GE fought the development of a cleanup plan with every tool it could buy, lobbying Congress, attacking the Superfund law in court, and launching a media blitz to spread disinformation about the usefulness of the cleanup, claiming that dredging the river would actually stir up PCBs.

But advocates for the Hudson River stood firm, exposing the scientific holes in GE's claims; the public relations campaign failed to sway residents of the valley, and GE's lobbying efforts failed to move the EPA. The 2002 decision, which spurred GE to design a plan to remove 800 Olympic swimming pools worth of toxic muck from the river, was a landmark victory for the environment, and a blow to corporate polluters hoping to evade their cleanup responsibilities.

GE, however, has been dragging its feet on carrying out the cleanup. Dredging was slated to begin in 2005, but GE has repeatedly requested delays, pushing the start back to 2009. And in October of 2005, the EPA changed tack, rewarding GE's foot-dragging by striking a backroom deal that allowed GE to commit only to completing the first phase of cleanup -- a mere 10 percent of the job. Environmental advocates and government scientists expressed concerns that the agreement would not even ensure adequate performance of that initial phase of the cleanup. Under the Freedom of Information Act, NRDC obtained records spelling out the detailed bases for these scientists' concerns, and filed suit against the EPA and the Department of Justice to compel them to release additional records they had refused to provide.

Despite the controversy, top federal officials pressed ahead with the agreement and, at their request, a federal court formally signed off on the EPA-GE settlement in late 2006. Although GE has now begun some of the preparatory work for the cleanup, it continues to challenge the EPA over important details, and to press a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA's authority to require GE in the future to complete the second phase of the cleanup. If GE ultimately backs out of Phase 2, taxpayers would have to foot the bill to clean up GE's mess, face protracted legal battles with GE to require the company to complete the job (delaying any eventual cleanup by many years), or else be forced to live with a polluted river indefinitely. Much of the upper Hudson is already closed to fishing, and south of Troy, New York, women of childbearing age and children are advised not to eat fish at all. And the pollution is spreading, continually moving downriver from Albany.

NRDC and its coalition partners continue to track the situation, and remain prepared to take all available steps to ensure that GE conducts a full and thorough cleanup of the river it polluted.


last revised 3/23/2007

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