Is GE Mightier Than the Hudson?
§ In the infomercial and in full-page newspaper ads that have appeared in such dailies as the Albany Times Union, the Poughkeepsie Journal, the Glens Falls Post-Star and in many weeklies, GE states that PCBs in the Hudson are down 90 percent and that the river is cleaner than it has been in years. This is true, but hardly cause and effect, as implied. The river is cleaner because the Clean Water Act of 1972 required that communities begin treating their sewage before sending it into the river; the PCB level is down because the ban on the chemical's use has now been in effect for almost twenty-five years. Neither fact has any bearing on the remediation needed to rid the Hudson of some 100,000 pounds of PCBs that remain in the sediment and continue to poison fish, wildlife and humans. "This river needs to be cleaned! It will not clean itself," said a frustrated Carol Browner, head of the EPA in the Clinton Administration, at the December 6 news conference. "We've been studying this issue in some ways for sixteen years. The PCB contamination is not being buried by sediment...but in fact continues...to add to the ongoing pollution of the river."
§ Ramsey says in the infomercial that GE's dumping was at all times legal, that the company always had state permits. In fact, GE discharged PCBs into the Hudson for more than twenty-five years before obtaining a state permit in 1973, four years before the federal ban forced the company to stop dumping. Nor, points out Peter Lehner, head of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General's office, has GE ever obtained permits for the PCB seepage from the bedrock and soil at the Hudson Falls site, which dates back many years and is ongoing.
§ Ramsey also says that dredging will "disrupt life on the river for a generation...[that] it will be like having an off-shore drilling rig in your backyard twenty-four hours a day." This fearmongering is accompanied by shots of huge clamshell dredges drooling great gobs of sediment and of trucks carrying backfill, with an ominous voiceover suggesting that they will lumber through local living rooms 57,000 times if the EPA gets its way. Given GE's three decades of defilement, the cleanup will hardly be accomplished by toddlers with pails and shovels. However, residents along the upper Hudson are not faced with GE's scary scenarios. The dredging would be concentrated in a forty-mile section of the river just below the two plants where some forty PCB "hot spots" have been identified. For some of the work, the EPA plans to use the latest hydraulic technology, which sucks up sediment and leaves the water calm enough so the process can be monitored with underwater cameras. Some clamshell dredging will be required, but nothing like the mud bath depicted in the infomercial.
§ "There's huge local opposition to this project," Ramsey assures viewers. By way of proof, he says that sixty towns (the newspaper ads say fifty) have passed antidredging resolutions. In fact, these votes reflect only the (not always unanimous) view of town boards in each of the communities, some of which have benefited from GE largesse, for example, $125,000 to Hudson Falls public schools for upgrading technology, and $30,000 for renovations at a park on the river at Schuylerville. Many other local governments up and down the river have yet to take a position, like Saratoga Springs, or are prodredging, like Croton-on-Hudson, which in December sent letters to the antidredging town boards urging them to reconsider their opposition.
Environmentalists and pushy reporters have been trying for months to find out how much GE is spending on its propaganda onslaught. When I put the question to Mark Behan, GE's spokesman in the region, he delivered a polite lecture on how we journalists should be less interested in GE's public relations budget and more attentive to the misguided policies of the EPA and the company's sincere desire and remarkable efforts to rescue the Hudson "the right way." A shareowner proposal on GE's proxy statement for the past two years has called on the company to reveal not only its PCB-related PR expenses over the past decade but its fees for attorneys, experts and lobbyists. This effort is led by Patricia Daly, a sister in the Order of St. Dominic in Caldwell, New Jersey, and executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, a group of about thirty-five Roman Catholic dioceses and congregations that vote the holdings in their pension funds to try and bring corporations to heel. Daly has been prodding GE for twenty years. At its annual meeting in 1998 she compared the company's insistence that PCBs are harmless to Big Tobacco's claim before Congress that nicotine wasn't addictive; an enraged Welch shouted that she owed it to God to start telling the truth. At this year's annual meeting, on April 25 in Atlanta, the proxy proposal seeking budget figures for the anti-EPA campaign gathered 10.4 percent of the shares. This is a major hit, not least because for the second year in a row Alan Hevesi, New York City comptroller and a candidate for mayor, and Carl McCall, New York State comptroller and a candidate for governor, voted the millions of GE shares owned by the city and state in favor of the proposal.
Under questioning at the meeting, Welch said that GE is spending between $10 million and $15 million on its Hudson River PR campaign. The company has likely pulled much more than that out of its deep pockets, but even Welch's numbers overwhelm the opposition. Scenic Hudson, an environmental group that has been fighting the company for more than a decade (www.scenichudson.org), will scrape together some $500,000 this year to rebut GE's propaganda. For the coming fiscal year, the budget request of the EPA, which GE ever paints as an intrusive, big-spending federal behemoth, is $7.3 billion, one-quarter of GE's profits last year.