The Hudson River: Roiling the Water

January 01, 2015  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes Magazine  ·  Environment

For three decades General Electric Co. used the upper Hudson River as a dumping ground for a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — an insulator suspected of causing human cancer.

The practice was legal until regulators halted it in 1977. Twenty years later, the Environmental Protection Agency is mulling whether to force GE to mount a massive cleanup. It would be one of the biggest environmental dredging projects in history; raking up just the 40 worst sites would amass some 1.3 million cubic yards of muck — enough to fill Yankee Stadium past the upper deck.

It would be an expensive project — upwards of $1 billion, by some estimates — and it would probably be an environmental mistake. Stirring up the river muck that now covers PCBs dumped 20 years ago could end up releasing more of the chemical into the river above.

That doesn’t seem to bother the environmentalists pushing the project. "If you make a mess, you’ve got to clean it up. GE spent 30 years polluting the river, and it’s time to accept responsibility," says Richard Schiafo of Scenic Hudson. But what’s the objective here? Making the water clean or making GE walk the plank?

The Hudson River

Not surprisingly, GE is mounting a frantic campaign to derail the cleanup. The conglomerate has two compelling arguments in its favor. The first: In 20 years of testing, it still hasn’t been definitively proven that PCBs, known to be a carcinogen in rodents, also cause cancer in humans. One study this year, looking at GE employees with high exposure to PCBs, found they had significantly fewer cancer deaths than national and regional averages.

The second: Even if PCBs cause cancer or other harmful effects in people, the chemical may be better left where it lies. In the 22 years since GE stopped lining the riverbed with the chemical, silt and sediment have built up, covering the PCBs and reducing their infiltration into plants and fish. Stir it up to remove the bad stuff that lies a few feet under, and vastly more of it will end up on the top layer of the river floor.

A study, funded by GE and conducted by Quantitative Environmental Analysis of Montvale, N.J., found the PCB content in Hudson River fish has fallen 90% in the past 20 years. By early next year 75% of the fish in the damaged stretch of the Hudson will be safe for consumption, based on the federal threshold for PCB levels. The affected area stretches 43 miles from Hudson Falls in the north down to Troy, about 150 miles north of New York City.

New York State’s attorney general dismissed the study as "self-serving," and indeed it was. But GE also put together a panel of six (paid) outside experts to evaluate the QEA report. They found some flaws; GE corrected them, and the reviewers concluded the result was "state of the science."

The EPA has its own rival study, contending that without the dredging project, upper-Hudson fish won’t be safe for eating for another decade or more.

Note that GE has not escaped scot-free for its dumping. The firm has already spent $165 million for localized cleaning and will spend more for years to come. Also note that GE has support from residents on both sides of the river who have spoken out strongly against full-scale dredging.

Louis J. Thibodeaux, a chemical engineering professor at Louisiana State University and one of the outsiders tapped by GE to review the GE-paid study, says massive dredging is wrongheaded. "It’s so sloppy. You’ll have a dredge machine cutting up and down the river, reversing Mother Nature’s healing process."

EPA regional manager Douglas Tomchuk argues that controlling "resuspension" — that is, stopping the PCBS from resettling on the top layer of the river floor, "has been done elsewhere; it can be done here."

Rebuttal from Bradley Cushing, a vice president at Applied Environmental Management in Malvern, Pa., a consulting firm GE has hired: "No cleanup of an extended river such as the Hudson has ever been attempted. Typically, sediment cleanups have been in ponds or lakes or small areas in streams and rivers." What about the Hudson? "Even if you remove 95% of the PCBS, what remains will settle on the surface, and you may find you’ve made the situation worse than when you started."

GE officials say the largest sediment-dredging project to date, that of a lazy Louisiana bayou, required only one-eighth as much work as the Hudson site would require. That project took almost two years and $110 million to complete. So, the Hudson cleanup could take 12 years — and it might not begin until 2003. Alternatively, just letting nature take its course until 2015 might yield far cleaner water.

The EPA will review the new GE-funded report and a separate panel will review the EPA’s bleaker study of the issue. The agency won’t make a ruling until late next year.

Robert Boyle, author of a book lamenting the pollution of the Hudson River, has said that "corporations like GE have no soul to save." That sentiment pretty well captures what goes on in many environmental disputes. To the true believers, environmentalism is a religion, not a science, and practical considerations are all but irrelevant.