Is GE Mightier Than the Hudson?
Several newspapers in the upper Hudson region have tried to counter GE's obfuscation with solid reporting, among them the Times Union, the Post-Star and the Journal. The Post-Star's Thom Randall has traveled to PCB sites in Plattsburgh and Massena, New York, and Little Chute, Wisconsin, where he found that residents generally felt cleanup efforts had not proved overly disruptive. The Journal has taken a prodredging stand editorially, arguing that the EPA's decision is "the right one--and the agency should let nothing stand in the way of cleanup." But all this gray type tends to get lost amid GE's steady march of full-page ads, whose inch-plus-high headlines trumpet: IS THE EPA DESTROYING THE HUDSON TO SAVE IT? and WILL THIS BE THE LAST DIVE FOR TEN YEARS? (over a shot of a boy happily leaping into what is putatively the Hudson, a river known for decades as a particularly uninviting swimming hole south of Hudson Falls). At the websites of the Post-Star and Times Union (www.poststar.com; www.timesunion.com), buttons invite visits to the papers' considerable coverage of the dredging debate. Before you get to it a GE zipper ad sometimes appears, warning, "Don't let dredging destroy the Hudson," and urging you to "Click Here." The click whisks you away from the journalism to GE's website (www.hudsonvoice.com), where the company continues its EPA bashing and offers free copies of the infomercial plus antidredging lawn signs and bumper stickers.
Coverage by NBC, the media jewel in Welch's diadem, has ranged from wan to nonexistent. When the EPA recommended dredging in December, the Today show, CNBC, The Nightly News and WNBC-TV in New York City tiptoed through the story; Dateline, the network's twice-weekly, hourlong magazine program, has yet to touch it. And all eyes at NBC shut tight when Robert Wright, the network's president and vice chairman of GE's corporate board, met privately with New York City Council members in April to try to persuade them to oppose a bill that endorses the dredging project. (The New York Times, ever thorough, called on not one but two "journalism ethics experts" to enlighten its readers on the propriety of Wright's foray. Both of these worthies, it turned out, were former Times reporters; neither one thought the NBC president had done anything wrong in bringing his media clout downtown to the pols' chamber. Tom Goldstein, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where impressionable novitiates are prepared for the high calling of the Fourth Estate, avowed that Wright was just "a corporate citizen" doing his job.)
General Electric has mounted its near-hysterical fight against dredging the Hudson because it knows that the half-billion-dollar bill may be just the beginning. The company could also be forced to pay for cleaning up the PCB contamination in landfills along the banks; New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation has designated thirteen of these sites a "significant threat to the public health or environment." But it's the precedent that GE fears most if it loses to the EPA, because the agency could then require it to dredge at at least forty other sites around the country where the company has dumped PCBs. Already GE has reluctantly signed a consent decree that compels it to purge the PCBs it discharged into the Housatonic River at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at a cost that could run to several hundred million dollars. And lurking in the background is the natural resources damage claim provision of the Superfund law, which holds polluters responsible for devastation not addressed by cleanups--for example, the destruction of commercial fisheries, the contamination of the biota, the loss of recreational use. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the Interior Department established an explicit method of calculating such damages: the lost use of the natural resource from the time of the pollution until it recovers, plus money for restoration and replacement. For the Hudson alone, this could cost GE hundreds of millions of dollars on top of the cleanup bill, and possibly billions more at the company's other PCB sites.
In August the EPA is scheduled to hand down a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Hudson that, after sixteen years of studies and GE stalling, may finally require dredging. Usually in such cases, a company will sit down and work out a cleanup agreement with the agency, which is embodied in a consent order. "Almost every other major corporation in the United States has recognized that it makes no sense economically, and from a public relations viewpoint, to fight to the death about Superfund cleanup," says Gordon Johnson, who as a lawyer in the New York State Attorney General's office has tracked GE's Hudson maneuvering since the mid-1980s. If an unfavorable ROD does come this summer and the company continues to fight, the EPA can order it to dredge under Section 106 of the Superfund law; if GE still balks, it is liable for penalties of $25,000 a day and damages of three times the final cost of the cleanup. With Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe as its point man, the company filed suit last fall attacking the power of the EPA to issue 106 orders, saying they denied due process and were therefore unconstitutional.
In April President Bush said he would sign an international treaty negotiated during the Clinton Administration that would ban or curtail production of the so-called dirty dozen lethal chemicals, PCBs among them. Christine Todd Whitman, Bush's EPA Administrator, supported dredging when she was governor of New Jersey. These favorable straws, however, may not stand up to the hurricane of GE's propaganda campaign and its formidable Washington lobby, which includes the services of former Senator George Mitchell and right-wing zealot Gerald Solomon, who was GE's slavish water carrier while a congressman from the Albany area in the 1980s and '90s. Their voices are doubtless finding receptive ears in the corporate-friendly Oval Office, whose occupant received generous support from GE for his campaign last year, with a fillip of $100,000 for the inaugural. However this drama plays out, Jack Welch won't have to stint on golf balls when he retires. He owns 22.3 million shares of GE stock, which are now worth almost $1 billion.