Stirring up Sleeping Dogs in the Hudson

By Michael Fumento

July 22, 1999
Copyright 1999 Michael Fumento

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For three decades, General Electric discharged a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — an electrical insulating liquid — into the Upper Hudson River in New York. Though its actions were licensed, and the hazard of the chemicals is debatable, the EPA may order GE to dump more than a billion dollars into trying to dredge the PCBs up.

A new report and outside experts say that costs aside, for the environment’s sake it’s best to leave the chemicals right where they are. But will the EPA care?

GE’s PCB discharges began in the late 1940s. In the 1970s, however, studies began appearing connecting PCBs to cancer in rodents. GE ended the use of PCBs in 1977. Later the EPA and other regulators labeled the chemical a probable human carcinogen and then designated the Upper Hudson a Superfund site to be cleaned up.

Since then, the great majority of studies on humans, including some with extremely high exposures from their occupations, have shown no cancer link. One study this year, of over 7,000 GE employees who had much higher-than-normal levels of PCBs in their blood, found they had significantly FEWER cancer deaths than national or regional averages.

But with almost no exceptions, once a regulator has labeled something carcinogenic, the label remains regardless of even mountains of new evidence. Further, it’s amazing how many people in powerful positions will tell you that rodents are a better indicator of human health reactions than humans are!

The Hudson River report, commissioned by GE and conducted by Quantitative Environmental Analysis (QEA) of Montvale, New Jersey, looked at PCB levels in the water, sediment, plant life, and fish in the affected 43-mile stretch of the river.

Map of the Hudson River

Because moving water continually lays down layers of fresh sediment, every year the PCBs are buried deeper. As a result, QEA found area fish now only have a tenth the PCBs they carried in 1977, and as early as next year three-fourths of the fish should meet the FDA’s standard for commercial sale.

GE then put together a panel of six experts to evaluate its report. They concluded it was the "state of the science".

Thereafter, EPA quickly released its own study showing fish becoming safe not until around 2010 or even later. The GE report project director, QEA President John P. Connolly, says that’s because the EPA did "a very poor job in replicating the past," and therefore does so in its projections.

Meanwhile, GE awaits the forthcoming EPA decision of "To dredge or not to dredge" with understandable trepidation.

Two years ago, Applied Environmental Management (AEM), a Malvern, Pennsylvania consulting firm specializing in sediment cleanup, did a study for GE. It concluded dredging merely the worst areas down to three feet would extract 1.3 million cubic yards of material. That’s enough to overflow Yankee Stadium.

If landfilled the tab would be $450 million, while incineration would more than triple that.

Even environmentalists supporting dredging concede it could cost GE $2 billion to clean up the whole site. In fact, the very idea of it seems to make their toes tingle.

GE’s big, but that’s not pocket change to anybody.

Still, in bringing "good things to life" for us consumers, GE did pollute. Shouldn’t the company be punished?

Not according to the locals. "Residents on both sides of the river have spoken strongly against any dredging," according to the Albany Times-Union.

Further, GE has already paid over $165 million for localized cleaning and will continue paying for decades to come. That’s no slap on the wrist.

But most importantly, dredging could make the river more polluted.

The reason the fish are so much cleaner is that after 22 years, most of the PCBs are well buried. But dredging will cut deep into the river bed, bringing those chemicals right back up.

The EPA’s project manager of the site, Douglas Tomchuck told me controlling this "has been done elsewhere; it can be done here."

AEM Vice President Brad Cushing agrees, but says "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."

Further, he told me, "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."

Add to this that the longer the lapse between when the dredging would even begin, much less finish, the more time for natural remediation.

GE officials say that the largest sediment dredging project to date, that of a lazy Louisiana bayou, required only a tenth the dredging the Hudson site would need. Since the bayou site required 15 months of dredging, they calculate it would take perhaps 12 years for their site.

And according to Tomchuk, if the EPA orders it dredging probably wouldn’t begin until 2003. That would be 15 more years of natural remediation and ever-safer fish.

Louis J. Thibodeaux’s Cajun temper flares at the very thought of dredging. "It’s so sloppy," says the professor in chemical engineering at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and one of the GE study’s reviewers. "You’ll have a dredge machine cutting up and down the river, reversing Mother Nature’s healing process."

Cutting off GE’s nose may make its vociferous critics very happy. But it could well result in spiting the Hudson’s face.

Read a variation of this article by Michael Fumento.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on environmentalism.