CAPITAL REGION -- While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it considers General Electric's dredging of PCB contamination from the upper Hudson River complete, it held off on deciding whether the work has been effective.
The EPA decision to issue an initial certificate of completion led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James quickly announcing that the state will sue the EPA, and a chorus of criticism from environmental groups and Democrats.
"Despite the EPA's stance, the facts remain crystal clear: The cleanup of PCBs is incomplete, and allowing GE to walk away without accountability is dangerous to the health and wellness of New Yorkers," James said in a joint press release with Cuomo.
Announcing a long-awaited decision, EPA Region 2 Administrator Pete Lopez said the EPA found that GE had met its legal and technical obligations. He acknowledged that a lawsuit by the state was a possibility.
"We have some disagreement around the meaning of the [completion] decision, but I respect them," Lopez said. "We feel we are making the right decision based on the science and the law."
But he said the EPA isn't ready to declare the dredging has been successful, since it has only two years of data on whether the $1.7 billion project has caused PCB levels in fish to drop -- a key measure in determining whether the project has been "protective" of the environment.
"EPA has decided the best course of action is to defer a decision on whether or not the remedy is protective," Lopez said during a conference call. "EPA remains optimistic that the actions taken to date will achieve protectiveness for the Hudson River and its communities."
The dredging project was declared complete in the sense that GE has fulfilled its legal and technical obligations. GE paid for and oversaw the work, as required under the federal Superfund cleanup law.
The completion decision was the result of a required five-year review of the project that was originally due in 2017. Thousands of people and organizations commented, requiring the EPA take additional time to complete the review.
Lopez noted, however, that a final EPA decision to relieve GE of further responsibility for the contamination "is not available at this time," and may not be for another 50 years -- the amount of time it may take for fish to achieve safe levels of PCBs.
"The issuance of the certificate of completion does not let GE off the hook, as many people feared," Lopez said.
The PCBS -- toxic polychlorinated biphenyls -- were discharged into the river from GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward between 1946 and the mid-1970s. GE conducted the dredging under a 2002 consent order with the EPA, which was ordered after decades of federal and state reviews of the river's health.
Of the 1.3 million pounds of PCBs released, the EPA said dredging recovered 310,000 pounds. Much of the rest likely washed out into the Atlantic Ocean, an EPA official said. The agency described the dredging of "hot spots" of concentrated PCBs in the river as "very successful," though there are three localized "areas of interest," one new Northumberland and two near Mechanicville. Those areas have "slightly" higher concentrations than the surrounding areas, said EPA project manager Gary Klawinski.
The dredging of a 40-mile stretch of the river between Hudson Falls and Troy took place between 2009 and 2015. Lopez said the EPA has so far analyzed only two years of post-dredging fish data, from 2016 and 2017, and EPA considers the results "inconclusive."
"Far from declaring the job done, we will continue to move forward with the important work to continue to address PCBs in the Hudson River," said Walter Mugdan, regional deputy director and former head of the regional Superfund program.
GE issued a statement indicating it was pleased with the decision.
"Today's decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirms GE successfully completed the Hudson River dredging project," the statement said. "EPA concluded that the dredging project was effective in reducing PCB levels and said these declines are expected to continue. GE will continue to collect environmental data to assess ongoing improvements in river conditions and to work closely with EPA, New York state and local communities on other Hudson environmental projects."
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, citing the PCB levels remaining in fish, has repeatedly said the dredging was "not protective," and threatened a lawsuit over the EPA's then-pending decision.
"The federal government's failure to protect New York's environment and New Yorkers is unacceptable, and we are doing what we must to compel EPA and GE to finish the job and protect public health, the precious and irreplaceable Hudson River environment, and the communities that depend on a clean and healthy river," said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.
Hudson River environmental groups, which have called for more action by GE, praised the state for challenging the decision.
"Order GE to get back into the Hudson and deliver the results they committed to over a decade ago. Riverkeeper applauds
@NYGovCuomo and @NewYorkStateAG's decision to sue EPA for this inexplicable failure of will. We will enthusiastically support the state’s litigation," Poughkeepsie-based Riverkeeper said on Twitter.
“For more than half a century, General Electric’s cancer-causing contamination has deprived millions who live along or visit the Hudson River the opportunity to enjoy clean drinking water, fish they can safely eat, and riverfronts for recreation and business. EPA’s actions today will, if unchallenged, perpetuate the compromised condition of the river for at least another half-century," said Ned Sullivan, president of another group, Scenic Hudson.
Criticism came from other political leaders, as well.
"The job is not finished," said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y. "The Hudson River is still polluted with PCBs. The ecosystem in and around the river is still a threat to our public health. The EPA is even admitting that it will likely take eight more years to collect enough data to know if the remedy is actually working and more than five decades before the river is actually safe. All of this is unacceptable, and in light of those facts, the EPA’s action today is disgraceful."
"The EPA’s decision will make it harder for the EPA to require GE to continue dredging in order to clean up the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which GE discharged into the Hudson over a 30 year period," said U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, R-Rhinebeck, who represents the lower Hudson Valley.