Time for GE to Cut the Spin, Commit to a Full Cleanup of Its Toxic PCBs from the Hudson River

The time for GE’s spin is over.  With EPA expected to release cleanup standards for the rest of the Hudson River PCB cleanup as soon as next Monday, it’s time to finally hold the $170-billion company accountable for a full cleanup of its toxic waste.  The health of the river depends on it. 

(In the last 3 days, over 7,000 people have emailed EPA to demand a full cleanup.  Click here to join them -- and spread the word by sharing the link with your friends on Facebook or by email when you’re done!)

Although I wasn’t at yesterday’s meeting of the Community Advisory Group for the cleanup, I understand that GE representative John Haggard spoke at the meeting and specifically called out my last blog post, to say that it misrepresented GE’s proposals for Phase 2.  And today, GE posted its lasted spin online: 

[C]ontrary to some of the claims that have been made, GE is not advocating capping as a substitute for dredging. On the contrary, this will be one of the largest environmental dredging projects ever undertaken in the United States. Approximately 97% of the PCBs in the Phase 2 dredge areas will be removed by dredging equipment.

GE and EPA are discussing how much capping should be permitted during Phase 2 in areas where extensive dredging already has been performed. GE is recommending a more conservative, more protective approach than EPA developed for Phase 1, one that would result in less capping per dredge area than was performed last year.

I’ll freely grant that GE’s at least partly right about two things (and we’ve never stated otherwise).  But GE’s bottom line message doesn’t match the facts. 

First, it’s true that GE is not advocating capping as a complete substitute for dredging.  It lost that battle years ago.  But GE is proposing to limit the amount of effort – i.e., the amount of time and money -- it puts into digging out its toxic waste from the river.  And that means more PCBs would be left behind in the river forever.

Second, the standards now under discussion should result in less capping than Phase 1 – but that’s only true because 37% of the Phase 1 area was capped, largely due to errors than can be corrected in Phase 2.  Most egregiously, huge areas were capped at the end of the dredging season, when the technical standards were tossed aside and dredging was abandoned in certain areas, with winter rapidly approaching.  Those mistakes can’t be repeated in Phase 2.

We don’t see any way to square GE’s actual proposals with their new claim that they would remove 97% of the PCBs in Phase 2 – and they’ve provided nothing publicly to substantiate it. 

Nor are the company’s proposals “more protective” than the Phase 1 standards – if those Phase 1 standards had been applied as written. 

What is GE actually proposing?  Here’s a specific proposal GE set forth in a recent mark-up of an EPA draft of the Phase 2 cleanup standards.  (See pp. 17-18 of this document.)  In areas with no physical obstruction to full PCB removal, GE has sought a ‘get out of jail free card’ that would allow:

  • in an unlimited number of acres of river bottom, 6-inch thick layers of PCBs to be left behind, covered over only with sand, with average PCB concentrations of up to three times the targeted cleanup level; 
  • in an unlimited number of acres of river bottom, 6-inch thick layers of PCBs to be left behind, covered over with “caps,” with average PCB concentrations of three to six times the targeted cleanup level; 
  • in up to 10% of the area targeted for dredging, 6-inch thick layers of contamination, containing even higher concentrations of PCBs (with no upper bound), to be left behind and covered over with “caps”; and 
  • in an unlimited number of acres of river bottom, even thicker layers of PCBs, in unlimited amounts, to be left behind if the full depth of contamination turns out to be deeper than GE anticipated (as was very frequently the case in Phase 1).

As environmental advocates and the State of New York emphasized in writing to EPA last week, there’s no question GE’s approach would allow the company to dredge less than EPA called for in the 2002 ruling that governs the cleanup – and to cover-up more PCBs with material that may not stop the poison from leaching into the river, nor withstand erosion in the face of floods, storms, and ice flows that nature will throw at it.     

We’ve heard in our recent meetings with EPA that GE may have changed certain details of its proposal.  But we’ve heard nothing so far, from either EPA or GE, to indicate that the company has backed away from its desire to identify some percentage of the Phase 2 cleanup area as a sacrifice zone, where it can leave behind unknown amounts of PCBs that could be safely removed. 

The Hudson River deserves a full cleanup.  It’s time for GE to stop the spin and commit to getting the job done right.