2018 Cuomo Priority: Full PCB Clean Up of the Hudson River

Hudson River at Bear Mountain
Credit: Daniel Mennerich

Ahead of his upcoming State of the State address on January 3rd, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his first environmental priority of 2018—calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require more clean-up of toxic PCB contamination in the Hudson River.  And if they refuse, New York State will take the federal government to court.

His announcement, issued jointly with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, comes as federal EPA is poised to decide whether a multi-year, but inadequate, cleanup of PCBs from the Hudson River’s sediment by General Electric (GE) can be considered “complete.”

NRDC has fought for decades to ensure GE’s toxic mess is fully cleaned-up. In 2015, we petitioned the EPA—along with our allies Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, Sierra Club and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater—to not sign-off on any cleanup until it can ensure that it will adequately protect human health and the environment. 

Accordingly, we applaud the Governor and Attorney General for taking decisive action to protect the Hudson River and New Yorkers. And NRDC is prepared to join New York State in federal court if the Trump Administration signs off on GE’s partial cleanup in the River.

The 315-mile Hudson River is considered one of the most important waterways in the nation—economically and environmentally.  As Governor Cuomo stated yesterday, “The Hudson River is a critical economic engine and environmental treasure and New York will not allow PCB contamination to continue wreaking havoc on this vital resource.”

GE dumped more than one million pounds of hazardous PCBs directly into the River from the 1940s through the 1970s, and as a result the Hudson is now the largest federal “Superfund” site in the country. PCBs (or Polychlorinated Biphenyls) are highly toxic: they are known carcinogens and have been linked to a wide-range of other serious health effects in humans and animals. Exposure to PCBs can occur through consuming contaminated food or water, direct skin contact or even breathing contaminated air. And once released in the environment, they are extremely resistant to decay.

As my colleague Daniel Raichel has documented, in 2002—after decades of resistance by GE—EPA ordered the company to undertake a partial cleanup of the upper portion of the River. Further, even after this initial decision, extensive sampling demonstrated that EPA had vastly underestimated the amount of PCBs in this upper region.

By 2010, two other major federal agencies studying the Hudson—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—raised concerns about the greater-than-expected levels of PCBs in the River. And these agencies—in a rare public warning to a sister federal agency—concluded that the EPA cleanup plan, unless modified, would leave the "equivalent to a series of Superfund-caliber sites" in the Hudson. In 2015, NOAA flatly concluded that EPA-ordered plan would not achieve key health and safety cleanup targets for the River.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has also previously raised concerns that GE’s cleanup operation is inadequate. In 2016, it released a report concluding “that the dredging remedy is currently not protective of human health and the environment.”  State environmental officials added that “EPA should undertake all necessary actions to ensure that the remedy becomes fully protective to the benefit of the people of New York State.”

Despite all these concerns and objections, EPA and GE have persisted in their approach. 

The bottom line—and what is required under federal law as AG Schneiderman said in yesterday's announcement—is that EPA cannot declare that PCB cleanup is complete since the facts show that GE’s work to date is not sufficient to protect New Yorkers’ public health and our environment. 

PS: After posting this blog, we learned of a letter, dated 12/13/17, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to U.S. EPA that support's New York State's call for more PCB clean-up in the Hudson River by General Electric. Specifically, the letter states that the Service—which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior—"continues to be concerned about the significant PCB contamination left in the Hudson River, the time expected for the Hudson River ecosystem to recover from that contamination, and the adverse impact of that contamination upon the wildlife, natural resources, and the public that uses these resources."