UPDATE 6:45 p.m. EDT: Following a letter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is extending the period of time the public can comment on General Electric's decommissioning plan. The EPA will accept public comment until Oct. 5.
Two federal agencies on Tuesday requested that the Obama administration postpone General Electric’s plan to end its cleanup of the Hudson River without removing all the related pollution. While GE has said it is satisfied with its cleanup and is consequently shuttering its dredging operations this year, the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a letter that GE’s current plan would leave fish in the river “unacceptably contaminated” with the toxic chemicals called PCBs that the company spewed into the river decades ago.
“Now is the time for GE to thoroughly address its PCB contamination of the Hudson River,” the agencies wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has cited data to label PCBs “probable human carcinogens.”
The EPA forged an agreement in 2002 with GE to clean up some of the PCBs that the company’s Upstate New York manufacturing facilities deposited in the river in the mid-20th century. Under that agreement, EPA must approve GE’s decommissioning plan in what has become the nation’s largest Superfund site. Interior and NOAA assert that if the EPA approves GE's plan to decommission its dredging facilities, it would remove equipment that would have to be redeployed if the agencies later require GE to do more dredging.
In a statement to International Business Times, GE spokesperson Mark Behan criticized what he called "the baseless speculation of the Trustee agencies" in their request to have EPA delay the end of dredging. He said "the processing facility was always intended to be temporary and to serve only the EPA dredging project. To retain an unneeded facility serves no purpose, and will deprive the owners of the property on which the facility is built and the local community of future economic opportunities they wish to pursue."
Interior and NOAA are two of the three trustees charged with overseeing the long-term restoration of the river, parts of which have been deemed by governments to be unsafe to use for drinking water and fishing because of GE’s pollution. The third trustee is the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (aka DEC). That state agency is controlled by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose affiliated political groups have received more than $466,000 worth of campaign contributions from GE. New York government records also show that since Cuomo took office, GE has consistently lobbied the state’s executive office as well as the state’s conservation and health agencies involved in overseeing the Hudson River.
In recent months, environmental groups and state legislators have called on DEC and Cuomo to use their authority to join NOAA and Interior in pushing GE to fully clean up the Hudson. The agency, though, has remained silent, while the Democratic governor has said he "hasn't really looked into” the push for more dredging. At the same time, Cuomo has offered General Electric taxpayer subsidies to move some of its facilities to New York, leading some environmental groups to publicly question whether the company is using its political influence -- and the possibility of a move to New York -- to keep the Cuomo administration quiet.
Those questions have been simmering since Cuomo’s administration declined to join the other trustees on a 2014 op-ed pressing GE to intensify its cleanup. The EPA later said there had been "radio silence" from the Cuomo administration when EPA approached it about compelling more dredging.
Cuomo’s office did not respond to IBT's questions. A spokesperson for the DEC, Jomo Miller, told IBT: "DEC is continuing to work on all natural resource damages and navigational dredging issues with our federal and state partners."
How Far Can EPA Go?
Under the 2002 cleanup agreement, GE is required to remove only about 65 percent of its total pollution from the river. In a May conference call with reporters to discuss General Electric’s plan to end its cleanup in 2015, EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said that the trustees had not yet asked EPA to delay the dismantling of GE's dredging operations, but that "if they do come in with something, we will look at it." But in September interviews with International Business Times, Enck and EPA officials declared that the agency may not actually have the authority to force GE to go beyond the terms of the 2002 agreement.
“Legally EPA cannot require GE to do more dredging than what is outlined in the consent decree,” Enck told IBT. She said that the only way EPA can compel more dredging is “if conditions in the river have changed, if there are things in the upper river that we didn’t know about when we issued our cleanup plan” and “if we determine that previously unknown conditions are not protective of human health and the environment.” She declared: “Neither of these things apply here.”
That assertion, however, contrasts with a series of recent revelations about the assumptions on which the agreement was based.
In 2009, NOAA reported that its data showed EPA’s original agreement “underestimated” how much pollution would be left in the river, and that the current plan could leave PCB levels “approximately five times higher than EPA model estimates.” In 2011, the agency told GE that PCB contamination was “higher” than estimated when the cleanup agreement was forged, and also said that the rate of predicted natural recovery is “much slower” and “verging on negligible.”
GE Underreported Contamination
Then in May , the EPA said it discovered GE had been underreporting the levels of PCB contamination in the river's fish. A few months later, NOAA reported that GE’s pollution remains “greater than predicted by EPA” and “showed little evidence of [the] decline” that had been projected. To address the situation, “additional removal of PCB-contaminated sediment in the [Upper Hudson River] was needed,” the report said. Now comes the formal request for a delay from NOAA and Interior, which shows the current plan "will not achieve the goals of the original agreement until decades later than predicted," said Margaret Byrne of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. NOAA and Interior say EPA should conduct a review of the new information before approving any plan by GE to end the dredging.
In response to IBT’s questions, an EPA spokesperson acknowledged that “after dredging began in 2009, we also found that the mass of PCBs in the sediments being dredged exceeded what had been estimated” -- and the spokesperson said the dredging subsequently “removed more PCBs than had been estimated” at the time of the original agreement. The spokesperson also said that the agency took some of the recent revelations into account during its 2012 review of the river, and concluded then that GE’s current cleanup plan nonetheless “remained fully protective of human health and the environment.”
“Three years later, we continue to stand by that conclusion,” the spokesperson added. That sentiment was echoed by Behan, the GE spokesperson, who said "EPA, which has approved and overseen every aspect of this project, has determined that the dredging project has achieved its goals of protecting the environment and public health."
Those assurances, however, have not satisfied legislators and environmental groups, who say that the letter from NOAA and Interior should prompt EPA to reject GE’s block plan to end the cleanup.
“EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck has explicitly called for such a letter from the Trustees to empower her to act,” said Ned Sullivan, a former environmental official in Gov. Mario Cuomo’s administration who now runs the environmental group Scenic Hudson. “Now it is time for her to halt GE's premature dismantling of its operations. The company's cleanup is inadequate and must continue for two more seasons -- to protect the health of the river and the people of New York."
EPA is holding a public meeting on Thursday in Saratoga Springs to accept public comments on GE’s proposal to end its dredging. Major national and state environmental groups have scheduled a protest at the event, specifically to “urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to push GE to keep its dredging operation going for at least the next two years.”
This report has been updated to include a new statement by the DEC.