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A River Runs Through It:
How Dredging Split the Upper Hudson

12.16.2000 | ENVIRONMENT

New York State's Hudson River, designated an American Heritage River in late July by President Clinton, holds the dubious distinction of being the United State's largest Superfund site. For three decades the General Electric Co. used the upper Hudson River as a dumping ground for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)--an insulator suspected of causing cancer.

From 1946 to 1977, GE lawfully released 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river from two capacitor manufacturing plants located in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. Now, twenty years later the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended dredging 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river bottom over a five-year period. GE would be responsible for picking up the $460 million cleanup bill.

After a required 90-day public comment period, the federal agency is expected to decide in June whether to approve the biggest environmental dredging projects in history. Cleanup from just the 40 worst sites would amass enough muck to fill Yankee Stadium past the upper deck.

Now it's the public's turn to speak out on the Hudson River's Big Dig. By the time it's over our ears will be bleeding and hopefully, not from the GE chemicals. A hearing in Saratoga Springs Tuesday kicked off the public comment period and naturally, the reaction was mixed among the 1,000 who filled the Saratoga Springs City Center . Heckling and cheers were traded back and forth from red-shirted pro-dredgers and green-shirted anti-dredgers. The public will have until Feb. 16 to file comments with the EPA, which intends to hold more public hearings in late January.

The public has been salivating at the opportunity to get in on the discussion. The subject is the talk on local radio. Like the presidential election, even the most jaded or cynical are talking. During the first meeting, most of speakers were calm but the audience responded emotionally to their comments, depending on their pro or con stance. In the end, the EPA can deviate only so far from the will of the people, even in the face of scientific evidence. Never will such a relative few be listened to more carefully by the decision-makers.

U.S. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey was among the 110 who signed up to speak for two minutes on the proposed plan, condemning GE's lack of its lack responsibility. Hinchey, whose district includes parts of the Lower Hudson River called GE "lawless" but with 11 delays during the last decade, the law is also to blame. The EPA have hardly shown consensus here.

The affected area stretches 43 miles and three counties (Washington, Saratoga and Rensselaer) from Hudson Falls in the north to Troy, about 150 miles north of New York City. Much of the controversial cleanup would be concentrated between a 11-mile stretch between Fort Edward and the Northumberland Dam.

Dredging the Hudson will be expensive and it could be an environmental mistake. In 1984 the EPA found that a massive dredging program like the one recommended would be "devastating to the river ecosystem. Stirring up the river muck that now covers PCBs dumped 20 years ago could end up releasing more of the chemical into the river above, which could turn the local health risk into an international one (PCBs can be carried by wind thousands of miles, which could blanket the entire Northeast, Canada and beyond).

In addition to residential property, the Hudson remains an important source of hydroelectric power, public water supplies, transportation, and recreation. The Cities of Waterford, Poughkeepsie, and Rhinebeck obtain their water supplies directly from the Hudson and a water intake near Chelsea may be used to supplement New York City's water supply during periods of drought. While environmentalists are pushing GE to clean up the mess they made, some wonder whether the real agenda here is to make the water clean or make GE pay through the nose?

For its part, GE has refused to admit that these pollutants pose a health threat. Not surprisingly, GE mounted a frantic and extensive multi-media PR and advertising campaign to derail the cleanup. Since May, the company has bombarded the Capital District (Albany and its surrounding communities) with TV, radio and newspapers in the hopes of swaying public opinion against dredging. Critics claim that GE is buying public opinion through its Hudson River ad initiative.

The conglomerate does have two compelling arguments in its favor though. In 20 years of testing, science has yet to definitively prove that PCBs cause cancer in humans. One study this year, looking at GE employees with high exposure to PCBs, found they had significantly fewer cancer deaths than national averages. Second, even if PCBs cause cancer or other harmful effects in people, it might be better to leave the chemical where it lies. If dredging is successful in removing most of the PCBs, but the rest settles on the surface or is air-airborne, the environment situation is significantly worse. In the meantime, GE hasn't entirely escaped scot-free; the company has already spent $165 million for localized cleaning.

A GE-funded study done by Quantitative Environmental Analysis of Montvale, N.J. found that PCB content in fish had fallen 90% in the past 20 years. According to these projections, 75% of the fish in the damaged stretch would be safe for consumption next year, based on the federal threshold for PCB levels. Eating fish is the primary way humans are exposed to the chemical.

Moreover, there has never been a cleanup of this magnitude. Typically, sediment cleanups have occurred in ponds, lakes or small areas of streams, but never an extended river. In arguing their case, GE officials point toward the largest sediment-dredging project to date in a lazy Louisiana bayou . It required only one-eighth as much work as the Hudson, taking almost two years and $110 million to complete. At that rate, the Hudson would take 16 years and millions more to complete. GE believes that just letting nature run its course will yield far cleaner water over time.

GE had ardently lobbied government officials in Washington in the hopes of delaying a cleanup decision. Subsequently, GE since has hired former House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston as their point man in Washington, relying on his considerable contacts with former colleagues.

There are no easy answers to the Hudson dilemma. Polls and surveys have found that while opinion vary dramatically, there is a north and south trend. Opposition to dredging increases north (where nearly all the targeted hot spots are located) while the number of people with no opinion, signaling less background or understanding, rises southbound. Recent polls show that more residents in Hudson River communities oppose dredging PCBs but with many people still undecided, this battle will continue to ebb and flow like the mighty Hudson.

While dredging may be viewed as a boom to some, in other areas the $460 million EPA remedy is seen as the end to an economic comeback sparked by Gov. George Pataki's 1995 announcement to reopen the most contaminated portion of the river to a catch-and-release fishery. Many felt that Pataki's decision confirmed the fact that the river was recovering.

The GE media blitz appears to be unrivaled in scope for such an issue. It has been spectacular. The company has waged an advertising war against adversaries who won't fire back. By the time the EPA plan was unveiled last week, nearly nine out of 10 adults in the Upper Hudson River region had seen GE ads, according to a Times Union poll. While the company is spending millions of dollars on commercials and print advertisements, the EPA had said it would not respond with advocacy spots of its own. This week the Sierra Club started to air primetime spots on behalf of the EPA position but it may be too little, too late since GE has outspent its opponents by a 100-1 ratio.

In its defense, the EPA says that it has put information since the beginning but unlike GE's information, you have to search for it. Observers have estimated GE's campaign at $20 million, a faction compared to the $200 million they spent on prior clean and research. But with the recent EPA recommendation, for which GE would be liable a half-billion dollars, the campaign continues with such memorable ads as those featuring interviews with residents along the river who oppose dredging, scenes of dredging in Michigan and many wildlife shots.

There is conflicting evidence over whether GE has gotten its money's worth here. Running too many ads runs the risk of beating the issue into the minds of residents, who may resent the money being spent. Some of the controversy stems from General Electric's five-figure, full-page newspaper ads with an open voting booth and the caption: "opposed to dredging? Unfortunately, you don't get to vote.'' This is misleading, and the last thing GE would want. A statewide referendum on dredging, one giving New York City and unaffected areas alike the chance to weigh in on responsibility, would be the equivalent of a public beating. But GE is playing on public fear and the fact public opinion will most certainly count when the EPA reconsiders.

In essence, the GE campaign has been effective and shameless in spreading half-truths about a subject with serious health implications. Effectively, GE has managed to create a growing base of public opinion against dredging based on no empirical evidence, but on a lot of what if's. Give them credit. They managed to sell it. Who knows what side is right; science isn't foolproof.

Personally, I've always felt that nature has a way of healing things. You don't rip off a scab without leaving scars. At the same, no matter how much they allude to it, the river will remain polluted. Will the river that runs through it be the river that ruins it for GE, or the infested waters continue to ruin it for the rest of us? We shall see.

For more information, visit the GE site, or the EPA's site at

About the Author
Daniel Sherman is a freelance writer from New York. He currently writes a weekly column for the Greenwich Village Gazette.
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