State to EPA: Don’t Leave NY with a Dirty Hudson River

The Hudson River. Beautiful, but still contaminated.
Credit: Photo by Juliancolton

Sometimes you have to face facts, even if the truth isn’t pretty.

That’s essentially what New York State Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Basil Seggos, wrote today in a strongly worded letter to the U.S. EPA regarding the cleanup of the massive amounts of toxic chemicals known as “PCBs” that the General Electric Corporation or “GE” dumped into the Hudson River.

What’s the kernel of this hard truth?  Basically that, despite EPA’s best intentions at the outset, GE is now close to walking away from a cleanup that will leave the Hudson River much dirtier than originally anticipated—and the hundreds of thousands of pounds of PCBs that will be left behind may continue to pose a “significant threat to human health and the environment” for decades to come.

But Wait, How Did We Get Here?

As we’ve written about before, it all started off promisingly enough.  In 2002, after years of the corporation fighting tooth and nail to avoid responsibility for its toxic legacy, GE was ordered by EPA to dig up (or “dredge”) and safely dispose a limited portion of the millions of pounds of PCBs that it dumped directly into the river from the 1940s to the 1970s.  However, that was before EPA discovered that its proposed cleanup area (only the upper 40 miles of the 200 mile long “Hudson River PCBs Superfund Site”) was about two to three times more contaminated than originally thought.

Despite the alarming revelation, EPA and GE moved forward with more or less the same plan.  The cleanup—as originally designed—began in 2009.

The “Inconvenient Truth” About the Hudson Cleanup Becomes Clearer

It didn’t take long, however, for GE to start digging up the unpleasant truth.  Early results showed that GE was removing many more PCBs than expected in the limited number of areas where they were required to dig—meaning that, in all likelihood, many more PCBs were also lying in the river just outside those areas. Reading the writing on the wall at the time, two federal agencies (NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife) reported that the cleanup would leave behind “the equivalent to a series of Superfund-caliber sites” in the river, and that average PCB concentrations in parts of the Upper Hudson would “be five times higher after [the cleanup] than predicted.”

In 2015, NOAA followed up on these observations with additional computer analysis, which demonstrated, unsurprisingly, that the current EPA cleanup plan would not achieve key health and safety cleanup targets for the River.  In particular, it found that many fish would be contaminated with unsafe levels of PCBs for as much as 40-50 years longer than anticipated.

The Time to Act Is Now

It’s this and other recent data—such as EPA’s recently released results on PCBs in fish through 2014—that the State is reacting to, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

Right now, EPA is conducting what’s known as a “five year review” for the Hudson, in which it will try to answer the most important question of the whole cleanup: namely, whether the cleanup adequately protects human health and the environment.  This wouldn’t be the first time EPA has tried to answer this question—it conducted a similar review in 2012 that was widely criticized as inadequate—nor will it be the last, but it may be the most critical one.

That’s because GE finished the halfway cleanup last fall, and is now expected to ask EPA to “certify” the cleanup as complete shortly after the review (expected to be finalized in April of 2017).  If EPA does so, it could be signing away some of its important enforcement rights, making it much more difficult for the agency to make GE finish the job in the future.  That would leave New York residents and taxpayers holding the bag to pay to remove the mess, or, alternately, to continue living with GE’s toxic pollution.

Focusing on the Facts and Holding GE and EPA Accountable

Today’s letter shows more strong environmental leadership from Governor Cuomo (the same governor who brought you the ban on fracking and one of the most aggressive clean energy plans in the nation) by recognizing that it is absolutely critical that EPA thoroughly address the risk posed by the PCBs it now appears poised to let GE leave in the river.  In particular, it focuses the agency’s attention to the mounting scientific evidence showing that GE’s PCBs will continue to be a threat to New Yorkers and the environment for decades to come.

The letter also reaffirms that, during the five year review process, the State will be an active participant, keeping a careful eye on the facts, and turning up the heat on EPA and GE to make sure that they take all necessary steps to fully and speedily restore the Hudson to the cleaner and safer river that we all deserve.