Last week, General Electric announced that it had completed its legally mandated environmental-dredging project in the Upper Hudson River. Since 2009, the company has spent more than $1 billion to pull 300,000 pounds of PCB-contaminated sludge out of a 40-mile stretch of the river bottom between Fort Edward and Troy, just north of the state capital in Albany. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the project a success, but not everyone is happy. Environmental groups want the company to keep cleaning—and keep paying—for a long time to come.
“We are outraged at GE’s callous disregard for the people of New York and the health of one of the country’s most precious resources, the Hudson River,” said Peter A. Gross, executive director of Clearwater, Inc., the environmental advocacy organization founded by the Communist folk singer Pete Seeger. “GE’s refusal to clean up its mess makes a mockery of its claims to be a responsible corporate citizen.”
It isn’t clear what Gross means by GE’s “callous disregard” and “refusal to clean up its mess.” Between 1947 and 1977, the company was legally permitted by national and state environmental authorities to use the river to dispose of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. In 1976, Congress banned the manufacture and use of these man-made chemicals—once regarded as “miracle compounds” for their fireproof properties—over concerns that they could pose a danger to the environment and a health risk. A direct link between PCBs and cancer in humans has not been scientifically demonstrated, though it is suspected by many.
New York State administrative judge Abraham Soafer ruled in 1977 that GE had violated its state permit, but that “the permit may reasonably have led GE to feel justified in discharging PCBs into the Hudson.” In a settlement, GE agreed to cease the dumping and clean up its Fort Edward and Hudson Falls manufacturing sites. Acknowledging that it had sanctioned the dumping, New York State agreed to clean up the PCBs buried beneath the muck on the river bottom.
Things didn’t go as planned. New York had a hard time finding a dump site for the polluted sludge and sought a way to get GE back on the hook for cleaning up the river. In 1984, state officials convinced the EPA to declare all 200 miles of the Hudson south of Fort Edward a federal Superfund site, obligating GE—as the “responsible party” for the pollution—to foot the bill for the river’s cleanup. GE appealed, on the grounds that the Soafer-negotiated settlement absolved it of any future responsibility for dredging, but by the mid-2000s the company had relented, reaching a final agreement with the EPA to clean up the site. For the last six years, GE has employed 500 full-time workers to excavate the river bottom and treat contaminated sediment at a “dewatering” facility specially built for the project. In addition, the company restored the underwater ecosystem with more than 70,000 individual plants.
That the Hudson River had a tough twentieth century is not in dispute. Clearwater recalls a time when the Hudson “was rank with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and oil pollution; fish had disappeared over many miles of its length.” No one could argue that the Hudson is more distressed now than it was in 1966, when Seeger mounted his campaign to save it. Yet the perpetual outrage reflected in Gross’s statement indicates that his organization fears becoming a victim of its own success. A healthy Hudson eliminates the need for outfits like Clearwater. “The time is now or we will not, I fear, have a future for the human race,” Seeger used to say. The time has been “now” for Clearwater for the last 50 years. One gets the sense that it always will be.
Clearwater is not the only high-profile activist group stoking hysteria about GE’s alleged disregard for citizens of the Empire State. Riverkeeper, the self-appointed “neighborhood watch” environmental group long associated with Robert Kennedy, Jr., blasted GE for its “mission accomplished” declaration. “GE can’t claim a job well done, and leave the Hudson River and its communities with this mess,” said Riverkeeper staff attorney Abigail Jones. Yet, for decades, Riverkeeper has happily taken credit for helping the Hudson regain its status as “the region’s gem.” So which is it? The answer seems to depend on the context. When Time recognizes Kennedy as a “Hero of the Planet,” the Hudson is a gem; when Riverkeeper is doing fundraising, the river is a mess.
It’s been decades since the Hudson River was as clean as it is today. “The Hudson’s color at Tarrytown once matched the paint applied to vehicles at a General Motors plant there; now such scenes are unthinkable,” says the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The environmental groups who sounded the alarm about the dangers of pollution from PCBs deserve credit for this turnaround. But so does GE, which actually paid for—and performed—the work. Gratitude doesn’t appear to be forthcoming, however. The environmentalists have too much at stake.