Editorial: Keep up fight to remove PCBs from Hudson River

Too much contamination remains for cleanup to end now
PCB dredging operations on the Hudson River in Mechanicville in June 2015.
PCB dredging operations on the Hudson River in Mechanicville in June 2015.

If you set the bar low enough, you don’t have to really do all the work needed to actually complete the task.

That’s the message sent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday in concluding that no more cleanup is needed to remove potentially cancer-causing PCBs from the Hudson River.

And for New Yorkers, particularly those who fish, boat and live near the Hudson, it’s a decision that will negatively affect them and the environment for many decades to come.

The EPA on Thursday did as expected and concluded that General Electric Co. had fulfilled its obligation under a 2002 agreement to treat the millions of pounds PCBs it dumped into the river from 1947-1977.

The EPA justifies its conclusions in an 81-page report that the regional director admitted was narrow in scope and limited to the parameters of success set forth in the earlier records of decision.

Throughout the report, the agency states that PCB levels in the water and fish had generally declined, but that continual monitoring would be needed to ensure that the cleanup was successful.

Regarding the capping of so-called “remnant deposits,” deposits of PCB-contaminated sediment along the shorelines in several locations, the agency concluded that the caps are “intact and functioning as intended … although human health and ecological remedial goals have not yet been achieved.”

That sure sounds like a complete job to us.

The project was “working as designed” … “while not yet protective,” EPA Acting Regional Administrator Catherine McCabe said Thursday.

Sure, it’ll be at least 55 years before people can regularly eat the fish from the river without risking cancer, but hey, that’s as good as it’s gonna get. Deal with it.

The decision to end the dredging and other cleanup activities came over the vociferous objections of our own state Department of Environmental Conservation, public officials from communities along the Hudson, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Congressman Paul Tonko and other representatives, as well as environmental groups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The DEC, in a better-late-than-never announcement last August, joined the already vocal opposition by stating that the river still contained “unacceptably high levels of PCB-contaminated sediment.”

On Thursday, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggs reiterated that objection, saying the agency strongly disputes the EPA’s conclusions and maintains that a “significant amount of contamination left in the river threatens both the public health and the environment.”

But all that is falling on deaf ears in Washington, where after spending as much as $1.7 billion on the cleanup over the past 15 years, GE is essentially off the hook for the remainder of the damage it’s done to the river and its ecosystem.

If many of the PCBs dumped into the river still remain and if the fish will still be dangerous to eat for the next half-century at least, then how can the EPA declare the project to be over? 

It’s clear that federal officials had their minds made up about this months ago, when they allowed GE to dismantle the PCB processing facilities the company had set up to collect and process for disposal PCB-contaminated material dredged from the river.

But in its report, the EPA left the door open to requiring more dredging should the evidence support the need for it. That means there’s a glimmer of hope for those who feel the project didn’t go far enough.

A 30-day public comment period on Thursday’s report has already begun. The clock is ticking to get this decision reversed.

Gillibrand, whose congressional district once covered much of the area affected by the contamination, urged all New Yorkers to demand that the EPA require GE to finish the job.

If you as a citizen are concerned about the environment and concerned about the wildlife that lives off the river, you’ll let the EPA know that you demand more than this.

And any organizations and government entities that might have additional factual data to add to the EPA’s report should gather it together and submit it. The EPA won’t flip the switch based on emotion alone.

This is a fight that must be won — for the sake of ourselves, of future generations, and of the environment.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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