With Important Decisions Nearing, Officials Withhold Over a Thousand Documents

NEW YORK (April 6, 2006) -- The Natural Resources Defense Council today filed suit asking a federal court to order the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release more than a thousand documents detailing the agency's controversial plans for the cleanup of cancer-causing PCBs that have tainted a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River and made it one of the nation's biggest Superfund sites.

The concern is that EPA is replacing a scientifically sound protocol adopted with great fanfare in 2002 with a poorly crafted and significantly weaker substitute that could also let General Electric foist a giant share of its cleanup costs onto taxpayers. At issue is essential information about the agency's proposed site remediation settlement with GE, which has been subject to widespread criticism by state officials, members of Congress, other federal agencies, and even EPA's own technical staff.

"EPA is beating a retreat from a solution that would have protected New Yorkers and our river and made sure the company that polluted it paid the bill, and it's all happening behind closed doors," said NRDC attorney Larry Levine. "The people of this state have every right to know what's happening, and to know it before the government seals the deal."

EPA and the Justice Department are expected to decide soon whether to proceed with the weaker plan.

PCBs dumped by GE over a period of 30 years have polluted the river from Hudson Falls to the southern tip of Manhattan. Much of the Upper Hudson is closed to both commercial and recreational fishing (except for "catch-and-release"). South of Troy, NY, commercial fishing for striped bass and eight other species is off-limits entirely, and children and women of childbearing age are advised by the state health department not to eat fish at all.

PCBs are highly toxic industrial compounds that cause cancer and a host of other serious problems including developmental effects and damage to the reproductive system in both people and wildlife.

Agency Backs Away From Sound Solutions

In 2002, after a 13-year "re-assessment" of the Superfund site, EPA officially determined that the only way to fix the problem for good is to remove enough PCB-laden muck to fill more than 800 Olympic swimming pools from the bottom of the river. The agency estimated the project would take six years, and cost more than $500 million.

Three-and-a-half years later, in October 2005, EPA announced a consent decree with GE under which the company would commit only to conducting the first of two phases of the cleanup, accounting for only 10 percent of the site. The proposed agreement also weakens the cleanup standards in EPA's 2002 decision.

"If the agency decides to let GE off the hook, the bill is going to go to taxpayers," Levine said. "Either that, or we are going to have to keep living with this deadly hazard while the polluter walks away."

GE is also suing EPA to avoid the agency's legal authority to compel the company to complete the second phase of the cleanup should the company choose not to carry it out. And just last month the company asked for yet another year's delay before the dredging efforts start.

The next step under the federal Superfund law is for the Justice Department to decide whether to forward the agreement to a federal judge, who would then have final say over whether the decree is adopted.

Official Concern About Cleanup Standards

In November 2005 The New York Times revealed an internal memo by experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) stating that the current PCB remediation plans are inadequate, and that the pact with GE departs significantly from EPA's original cleanup plans.

Among a limited number of documents released to NRDC so far under a pending Freedom of Information Act request are memos written by members of EPA's own technical staff as well as other federal agencies and state officials, reflecting similar concerns that the site will not be completely remediated.

In December 2005, as part of the Friends of a Clean Hudson Coalition comprising ten regional environmental organizations, NRDC called on EPA and the Justice Department to exercise the threat of imminent legal enforcement action to re-negotiate the proposed GE settlement agreement, and to insist on a commitment from the company to a full and complete cleanup.

NRDC's lawsuit is the second to be filed against EPA over the improper withholding of documents concerning the Hudson cleanup; in 2003, a federal court ordered EPA to release to the New York Public Interest Research Group documents that were exchanged between GE, EPA, and the White House during EPA's original deliberations on whether or not to dredge the river.