River Pollution and Corporate Responsibility

Cleaning Up the Hudson
  |  Gorp.com

Hudson River Valley School painter Thomas Cole's Storm King of the Hudson is a turbulent vision and an icon-making work. As clouds loom and swirl above one of the Hudson Valley's most famous peaks, the river seems to simmer in anticipation of the imminent onslaught.

It's an image more fitting than perhaps Cole would have wished, given the storm of controversy that's engulfed one of America's most mythologized rivers since the early 1970s. One fact seems undisputed: For thirty years, two factories owned and operated by General Electric dumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic waste into the Hudson River, contaminating earth, water, and wildlife for a 200-mile stretch running from Hudson Falls north of Albany to the Battery on Manhattan's southern tip.

Beyond that, the waters only get murkier. Opposing sides trade accusations of junk science and bald-faced politicking over issues ranging from how the clean-up should proceed to whether PCBs, the primary pollutant GE leaked into the water, are really hazardous to human health. Ever since GE stopped using PCBs in 1977, the company has been the focus of attention in a seemingly interminable legal struggle that has drawn the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), conservationists, the fishing industry, and numerous New York state agencies into a tangled web of alliances and conflicts.

The conservation group Scenic Hudson is one among many organizations that believes GE is not doing enough to clean up the Hudson. As of February 2000, Scenic Hudson spokesman Rich Schiafo gives the river "a failing grade" when it comes to PCBs, arguing that PCB-laden sediments at the bottom of the river continue to contaminate wildlife and pose a risk to human health. Schiafo says his group supports a process of "controlled, environmental dredging" to remove these sediments from the bottom of the river. "Leaving them in a dynamic river system like the Hudson is not acceptable," he says.

GE disputes the need for dredging. According to the company's web site, "dredging will not improve river conditions significantly faster than is already occurring naturally." GE spokesman Mark Bahner argues that the only PCBs that still pose a danger to Hudson River ecosystems are those that remain in surface soil and sediment under GE's Hudson Falls plant.

He says the company has already spent $165 million dollars on various cleanup projects, including the building of a network of 270 wells around the Hudson Falls plant to trap leaking PCBs before they get to the river. "Nobody has done more cleanup on the Hudson River so far than GE," Bahner says.

Controversy also rages over whether PCBs in the Hudson even threaten human health in the first place. "There is no credible evidence that PCBs are associated with cancer in people," says Bahner. Indeed, a GE-financed study of GE workers who were exposed to PCBs on the job up until the chemical was banned in 1977 found that, though most of these workers had elevated amounts of the toxic chemical in their blood, they did not die of cancer at a rate greater than the national average.

Few others seem to find GE's findings persuasive. Scenic Hudson's Schiafo charges their source makes them inherently untrustworthy, though the study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The EPA's position, publicized on their website, asserts that "PCBs cause cancer in animals and probably cause cancer in people, and also pose a number [of] serious non-cancer health risks." The agency also warns against eating fish caught in the Hudson.

Debate over PCBs in the Hudson will likely intensify towards the end of the year, when the EPA is scheduled to release its final report on the state of PCB pollution in the Hudson, what needs to be done, and what burden of liability GE should bear. Since 1989, the EPA has been engaged in a reassessment of an earlier decision not to pursue cleanup of PCB-contaminated river-bottom sediment.

After a six-month period for public comment following the issuing of the EPA's recommendations, the agency's decisions become legally binding. If the agency comes down in favor of dredging, GE will likely not only be faced with the massive costs of the cleanup project itself, but could also be found liable under a Natural Resources Damage claim that would require the company to financially compensate the public for causing damage to the environment.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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