Last spring Richard Pollak asked in these pages, "Is GE Mightier Than the Hudson?" (May 28, 2001). Given the Environmental Protection Agency's December 4 decision to dredge the PCB-contaminated river, it is tempting to ring in the new year with a resounding No. Despite the company's multimillion-dollar blitz of lawyering, lobbying and PR, the Bush Administration, in the person of its EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, has come down squarely on the side of those in New York's historic Hudson River Valley who have been agitating for years to make GE clean up the lethal mess it created by dumping more than a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls in the river from the 1940s into the 1970s. This pollution has turned 200 miles of the Hudson, from just above Albany south to New York Harbor, into the biggest Superfund site in the nation; EPA law requires that GE pay the cost of removing the toxic chemicals, which the agency estimates at $460 million. More than once, the company has told its stockholders it can well afford this sum, as a multinational with a market value of some $500 billion surely can.
Still, it may be premature to pop the champagne corks. This past fall, fearing that Whitman might follow the lead of her Clinton Administration predecessor, Carol Browner, and endorse the cleanup, GE filed a federal suit attacking as unconstitutional a Superfund provision that allows the EPA, if the company refuses to dredge, to do the job itself and bill GE for three times the final cost plus penalties of $27,500 a day. GE has plenty of time (and cash) to pursue this and other maneuvers against dredging, which is needed to remove some 150,000 pounds of PCBs still in the Hudson. The EPA estimates it will take at least three years to work out the project's engineering and other details--e.g., what kind of equipment is needed, how much stirred-up sediment is acceptable and what landfills can safely handle the contaminated mud. Many residents along the banks of the river are divided--sometimes angrily--on these and several other issues. During the EPA's 127-day comment period in 2001 it received about thirty-eight boxes of letters and 35,000 e-mails, many spurred by GE's scare campaign--on billboards, in newspaper ads and on TV infomercials--warning that dredging will destroy the river.
The EPA has pledged that the public will have even more of a voice in the project's design decisions over the coming months--a welcome process but one that GE is likely to exploit with more propaganda. At its enviro-friendly-sounding website (hudsonwatch.com), for example, the company continues to insist, on no hard evidence, that the citizens of the Hudson River Valley oppose dredging "overwhelmingly." Some residents do resist dredging and the inevitable inconvenience it will bring to their communities, and not all have arrived at their view because of GE's PR tactics. But after almost two decades of review by the EPA, the burden of scientific evidence shows that the remaining PCBs, which cause cancer in laboratory animals and probably in humans, continue to poison the river a quarter-century after their use was banned and GE stopped dumping them.
The EPA's December 4 order could be the precedent that requires the company to clean up forty other sites where it has dumped PCBs. This would cost several billion dollars, a hit not so easy to reassure shareholders about. Even with GE master-builder Jack Welch retired and busy flogging his bestselling How-I-Did-It book, don't look for the company to roll over anytime soon.