There’s a famous event from the American Revolution in which George Washington’s army was surrounded by British troops near the city of Trenton, N.J. in January 1777.
Rather than await a British attack in the morning, Washington outwitted the enemy soldiers by leaving a few campfires burning and a few men behind to make digging noises while the rest of his troops escaped on the way to fight in Princeton.
When the British troops showed up for battle the next morning, they realized they had been snookered. They then had to rush to catch up to Washington’s troops, who were by now well ahead of them.
So continues the saga of the fight to dredge PCBs from the Hudson River.
While New York officials dawdled (They’re the British in this metaphor.), General Electric Co. had pulled out its processing equipment from Fort Edward and, abetted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, essentially declared the dredging project complete.
The EPA concluded earlier this year that the project has been effective in significantly reducing PCB levels in the upper Hudson and that the only action needed now is monitoring of PCB levels in sediment, the water and wildlife.
Yet its report estimated it could be at least 15 years before it will be safe to eat fish from the river once every two months and it could be 55 years before PCB levels in fish will be safe to eat on a weekly basis.
That hardly sounds like a complete cleanup. And many people have been saying so for months.
New York officials knew full well that GE was moving its processing equipment out and did nothing to stop them.
They also were well warned by several respected environmental groups, state and federal lawmakers, citizens groups and the state’s own Department of Environmental Conservation that the $1 billion PCB cleanup wasn’t complete.
Now Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, on behalf of the state, are trying to play catch-up by threatening to sue the EPA if it declares the cleanup a success.
The threat of a lawsuit is the strongest statement to date from the governor on the subject. For a long time, he had been remarkably silent on the cleanup and on whether dredging should continue.
It’s probably no coincidence that that unusual silence from the governor coincided with his efforts to convince GE to relocate its headquarters to New York from Connecticut. With GE relocating its headquarters elsewhere, there is no longer any reason for the governor to hold back.
Any effort by state officials to restart this project and ensure that GE upholds its obligations to clean up the mess it made in the river is welcome.
But let’s hope that this threatened legal action isn’t a case of waiting too long to act, and that the state hasn’t already allowed GE to sneak away into the night.