Despite pressure from environmentalists over the years, General Electric Co. believes that expanding its dredging project in the upper Hudson River isn’t needed.
The company said as much in a 31-page report submitted to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Friday afternoon. GE agreed in March to study the possibility of expanded dredging after DiNapoli, who serves as trustee of the state pension fund, asked the company to answer shareholder questions about whether it could reduce its long-term liability by removing contaminated sediment outside of the current cleanup zone.
GE’s Fort Edward plant discharged about 1.4 million pounds of a possible carcinogen — polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — into the nearby river until 1977. After more than a decade of studies, hearings and discussions, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the company in 2002 to complete a massive dredging of the upper portion of the river. This project is expected to wrap up in 2016.
In the report issued Friday, GE said that any liability for natural resource damages beyond this cleanup is “speculative at best” because current scientific evidence shows wildlife populations in the area are “robust and thriving.” For this reason, GE said, an expansion of the dredging project isn’t warranted.
GE evaluated two forms of liability in the report. The first was remedial liability, or the actual dredging of the river to remove PCBs. Spokesman Mark Behan said that by the EPA’s own standards, GE’s current cleanup project is meeting all of its cleanup goals and is protective of “human health and the environment.”
“Based on the EPA’s determination, GE concludes in this report that once the dredging project is complete, it will have fully resolved its remedial liability,” he said.
The second potential liability GE examined was the liability for natural resource damages (referred to in the report as NRD). GE concluded that many studies and academic work have so far shown that the natural resources along the upper Hudson River are “thriving, healthy and robust.”
“Species by species, the scientific review of considerable data demonstrates that populations and ecosystems show no signs of the types of injuries that might give rise to NRD liability — and certainly not a significant NRD liability that might justify any large-scale pre-emptive dredging,” the report reads.
Behan pointed out that PCBs have been present in the Hudson River for at least 40 years now.
“There is an enormous volume of data that have been collected on it,” he said. “And studies thus far have not shown impacts yet. Not only has time passed, but over that period of time, PCB levels have steadily declined.”
It’s unknown what the EPA, which oversees the dredging project, thinks of GE’s conclusion. On Friday, EPA officials from the Hudson River field office said they hadn’t had time to go over the report.
“We, of course, will take a look at it,” said Bonnie Bellow, a regional EPA public affairs director. “But we can’t comment until we do.”
Eric Sumberg, a spokesman for DiNapoli, issued the following statement Friday evening: “We thank GE for undertaking the analysis requested in the Common Retirement Fund’s shareholder resolution. We are assessing this report and its potential impact on shareholder value. We will give careful consideration to appropriate next steps as we move forward with our review.”
Dredging has occurred for four seasons so far, from May to November when the state’s Champlain Canal system is open. It has involved more than 70 vessels, 500 rail cars and 350 employees. The objective is to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment containing PCBs from more than 40 miles of the upper Hudson. So far, GE has removed 1.9 million cubic yards of sediment.
Two more seasons of dredging will occur, and then GE will send divers in do “habitat reconstruction” at the bottom of the river. Behan said this involves re-planting native vegetation that was there before the dredging.
He said it’s unknown how much the overall project will cost GE, but that so far the company has spent more than $1 billion on the cleanup.
In the Friday report, GE admitted that it is not possible to conclude definitively that no future liability from the PCB discharge exists. But based on the information available, GE said it sees no legal or scientific basis to conclude expanding the dredging project would reduce future liability.
“GE assembled a world-class team to conduct the Hudson River dredging project and we are proud of what we have accomplished thus far,” said GE Corporate Environmental Programs Vice President Ann Klee in a later dated Friday to DiNapoli. “We will continue to perform this work as safely and effectively as possible while doing all we can to minimize impacts on local communities. We will continue to cooperate with EPA, New York state and the natural resources trustees and remain open to working with them to address Hudson River issues.”