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State sues EPA over Hudson River cleanup

State sues EPA over Hudson River cleanup

State contends GE cleanup has failed to protect the environment
State sues EPA over Hudson River cleanup
A PCB dredging operation is seen on the Hudson River in Stillwater in August 2014.
Photographer: Gazette File Photo

ALBANY -- The state on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its decision to declare a portion of the Hudson River PCB cleanup "complete."

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Albany, charges that the EPA broke federal law with the decision in April to issue a "certificate of completion" to General Electric for its multi-year project removing polychlorinated biphenyls from the river between Hudson Falls and Troy.

The EPA found that the company’s mandated cleanup of PCBs from the river was complete -- despite evidence, in the view of state officials, that concentrations of the toxic compound remain dangerously high in parts of the river.  State officials say, among other things, that PCB concentrations in fish remain unacceptable.

The lawsuit follows through on threats to sue that state officials have made repeatedly since it became clear in 2017 that the EPA was likely to accept the $1.7 billion GE-funded cleanup as "complete." The state says more dredging is needed to clean the river.

About 265 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment were removed during the dredging, mostly from highly contaminated "hot spots." The work took place between 2009 and 2015.

The suit, which is being brought by the state and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, asks the U.S. District Court to vacate the certificate of completion. That would send the matter back to the EPA for further review and action to make the cleanup "protective of human health and the environment."

“We will not allow the EPA to let big polluters like General Electric off the hook without a fight,” said Attorney General Letitia James, whose office filed the lawsuit. “The facts are clear: Hudson River fish remain much too contaminated with PCBs to safely eat, and EPA admits they don’t know when – or if – they ever will be."

“Trump’s EPA is failing New Yorkers and the environment by putting the priorities of polluters first,” Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement. “The Hudson River is among New York’s most precious natural and economic resources, but despite years of dredging, levels of PCB contamination are still unacceptably high in the river and in fish."

The PCBs were discharged from GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward between 1946 and 1977, and most of the contamination is in the 40 miles of river below there. But state officials note that the designated "superfund" area stretches down the river to New York City.

James said the "certificate of completion" was unlawful because human health and the environment have yet to be protected. PCB levels in fish remain about three times the project's goal, she said.

Although there is a ban in eating fish taken from the Hudson, studies by the state Department of Health and environmental protection groups Scenic Hudson and Sierra Club found that many people are eating fish caught from the river.

An EPA spokeswoman said Wednesday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. In April, however, EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez defended the completion decision, while acknowledging a lawsuit was expected.

Lopez said the EPA found that GE had met its legal and technical obligations under a 2002 EPA cleanup order. "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."

Separately, Lopez said the EPA wasn't ready to declare the dredging had been successful, since it has only two years of data. It is expected to take up to 50 years for PCB levels in fish to drop to acceptable levels, according to an EPA estimate.

GE defended the EPA's decision regarding completeness of the cleanup.

“EPA conducted a comprehensive review of the Hudson River dredging project and concluded that dredging successfully reduced PCB levels, no additional dredging is warranted, and GE met all of its obligations," said GE project spokesman Mark Behan. "New York state’s data showed that 99 percent of locations sampled in the Upper Hudson met the cleanup standard that EPA and New York set. Environmental conditions in the Hudson will continue to improve and GE will continue to cooperate with both EPA and New York State.”

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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