We’ve all known people with a “fear of commitment,” but lately it seems that the syndrome can also strike big corporations like General Electric, which for decades dumped toxic chemicals (polychlorinated biphenyls, aka PCBs) into the Hudson River. If not removed, those PCBs will continue to poison fish and wildlife – and anyone who eats them – for many more decades to come.
But as a long-delayed cleanup project arrives at a major crossroads, GE is balking at taking full responsibility for finishing the job. It’s now up to EPA – and the public – to demand that GE to commit to completing the whole cleanup.
To give you some brief background: For at least three decades (from the 1940s-1970s), GE fouled the Hudson River with over a million pounds of toxic PCBs – turning a 200-mile stretch into the nation’s largest hazardous waste site. The company then spent nearly another three decades – and tens of millions of dollars on lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations campaigns – trying to avoid all responsibility for cleaning up its mess.
In 2002, EPA finally ruled that PCBs must be removed from the river bottom to allow the Hudson to return to health. It was anticipated that work could begin within three years – but it took that long just for GE to commit to starting the cleanup. And still there was a catch – GE did not commit to finishing the job. Instead, the company negotiated a deal to do 10% of the cleanup (“Phase 1”) – which took place in 2009 – and to retain the option to walk away from the rest (“Phase 2”), leaving untold amounts of PCBs still contaminating the river, and American taxpayers holding the bag.
What’s more, GE is continuing a 10-year court battle seeking to invalidate EPA’s most powerful enforcement authority to ensure GE completes the cleanup, in case the company does try to walk away from Phase 2.
This week, GE announced that it doesn’t want to commit now to Phase 2. The company offered to commit only to one more year of dredging, while gathering additional data for technical decisions about how to design the rest of Phase 2 – and only then to decide whether to perform rest of the cleanup.
GE’s excuse for stalling? The company says it “does not have the information needed to make an informed decision.” GE says its position is all about using “sound science” – but, in reality, this is a delay tactic, plain and simple.
GE attempts a sleight of hand, confusing two different kinds of decisions that need to be made:
One set of decisions, about the design of Phase 2, is EPA’s to make. And of course those decisions must be based on sound science, a principle that everyone – especially the environmental community – supports. Throughout this year, EPA and GE have engaged independent scientific experts in a “peer review” process, to help identify the lessons learned from Phase 1 and aid EPA in designing Phase 2. And, as the expert panel recommended, EPA should build-in opportunities for fine-tuning the project, throughout the 7 to 9 years the panel estimates are needed for Phase 2, as more and better information becomes available from ongoing monitoring efforts.
The second decision is GE’s – and it’s not about science. As NRDC President Frances Beinecke recently explained, it’s all about taking responsibility. GE has to decide whether it will commit to completing Phase 2. And GE doesn’t need any more information to make that decision. All that’s missing is GE’s willingness to take full responsibility for cleaning up the toxic mess it made, commit to finishing all of Phase 2, and then get back to work with EPA using sound science to get the job done right.
EPA must hold GE’s feet to the fire and demand a commitment now to finish all of Phase 2.
And GE – after decades of avoiding commitment – must not leave all of us who love the river standing at the altar.
Addendum (9/17/10): GE’s Ann Klee asserts in a comment below that we’ve mischaracterized GE’s proposal. That’s simply not the case.
We have indeed heard GE say it is “prepared to conduct a major dredging project in Phase 2.” But it’s time now for GE to put its money where its mouth is and commit -- by formally “opting-in” to completing Phase 2, as per the terms of its 2006 consent decree with EPA.
GE says its just following the expert panel’s recommendations. But the panel did not recommend postponing the decision of whether to conduct Phase 2, until another season of data is collected. And yet, delaying that decision is precisely what GE has proposed, in its recent letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. (The panel, quite to the contrary, advised that no matter what the results of next year’s data collection are, a Phase 2 lasting about 6 to 8 more years after that will be necessary to clean up the river.)
Finally, as I explained above, NRDC does not believe that every technical decision about Phase 2 must be decided now, before next year’s results are in. And that’s not at all necessary, in order for GE to make the commitment to Phase 2. So we fully agree the plans made now for Phase 2 should build-in opportunities for fine-tuning the project, based on new information, using sound science to protect the river and local communities.
Ms. Klee is technically correct about one thing. As far as we know, GE has never said it won’t commit to Phase 2. But it refuses to say that it will. And right now – with GE trying to retain the option to walk away from the cleanup after next year, and suing EPA to invalidate the government's authority to prevent them from doing so – that’s a distinction without much difference.