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

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.