EPA and GE Set to Begin Final Phase of Hudson PCBs Cleanup; Strict EPA Oversight Will Be Key to Success

This week, the rubber finally hits the road -- or, more accurately, General Electric’s dredges hit the water -- in the final phase of the Hudson River PCBs cleanup.  This is truly a historic milestone.  GE battled for decades to see that this day would never come, but last year the company committed to finishing the massive cleanup, under the terms of a legally binding, federal court consent decree.

This marks, we all hope, the “beginning of the end” of a long saga.  A successful cleanup will give the river a new lease on life -- hastening the day when the river’s fish will be safe to eat, paving the way for restoration of important habitat for fish and wildlife, and creating opportunities for economic revitalization in communities along the river.

But even with the legal settlement between EPA and GE, a successful cleanup is not yet guaranteed.  As we celebrate the start of the cleanup, it’s important to remember how we arrived at this point, and what challenges lie ahead.  Continued vigilance by EPA and the public will be necessary to ensure GE removes the maximum amount of PCBs, while limiting releases of these toxins into the river and air. 

For over 30 years, GE sought to avoid, and then to minimize, its responsibility for cleaning up its own mess.  Ultimately, the company agreed to conduct 10% of the total cleanup that EPA deemed necessary, while reserving its rights to walk away from a court settlement that covered the rest of the work.  After conducting that first cleanup phase in 2009, the company spent the next year trying to delay its day of reckoning for the remainder -- or, failing that, to substantially reduce the scope of the cleanup.  Meanwhile, GE continued a long-running lawsuit seeking to invalidate EPA’s most critical enforcement authority to mandate a cleanup, which EPA had threatened to invoke if GE didn’t willingly agree to finish the work.

Under this intense pressure, and countervailing pressure from tens of thousands of NRDC members and concerned citizens, EPA rejected GE’s calls for delay.  The environmental agency announced cleanup standards to govern the rest of the project and gave GE 30 days to decide whether to willingly sign-on.  The cleanup standards for Phase 2 were, in some respects, a compromise, but EPA projects they will remove 95% of the PCBs from the areas targeted for dredging.

To its credit, in December 2010, GE committed to doing Phase 2 and we wholeheartedly applauded that decision.

But many potential pitfalls lie ahead. Stringent EPA oversight will be critical to ensure a successful cleanup.   Here are some key issues to watch:

  • The major change from Phase 1 of the cleanup is that only two “passes” with the dredge will generally be required in any given location.  This can be an effective way to reduce the risk of PCBs escaping during the dredging process.  But to make this work EPA must insist on accurate pre-dredging sampling to find out how deep the PCBs lie -- something that was too often lacking in Phase 1.
  • The cleanup standards allow GE, in about 22% of the cleanup area, to cover leftover PCBs with “caps,” even if additional dredging could remove it.  This was one of EPA’s key concessions to GE last year.  EPA must ensure that GE maximizes PCB removal before resorting to caps and never exceeds the maximum allowable area of capping.  To achieve this, EPA must require GE to err on the side of dredging too much, rather than too little, wherever uncertainty remains about how deep the contamination extends -- even if that means higher costs for GE.       
  • The cleanup standards include built-in opportunities for GE to seek adjustments as the project unfolds -- including changes that could ultimately curtail the scope of the cleanup.  EPA must ensure that flexibility in the standards is used only to maximize the cleanup’s effectiveness, not to reduce GE’s burdens.
  • Phase 1 encountered challenges in re-planting aquatic vegetation, which is essential to restore habitat for fish and other creatures in the dredged areas.  EPA must ensure that habitat reconstruction is successful in Phase 2.
  • Other federal agencies involved in restoring the Hudson have questioned whether the area targeted for dredging is broad enough to capture all of the PCB “hotspots” on the river bottom.  The areas of concern are downriver from where this year's work will take place.  By the time the project reaches these areas, EPA should thoroughly evaluate the evidence and adjust cleanup boundaries as needed to protect the environmental and public health.

NRDC and our long-time coalition partners, Clearwater, Riverkeeper, and Scenic Hudson will continue our vigilance as the cleanup continues.  We celebrate a major milestone today and look forward to a much cleaner and healthier Hudson River for all to enjoy.  But, with years of cleanup work ahead, we cannot lose sight of the old saying: “trust but verify.”