Reclaiming a River
A floating dredge lowered a clamshell bucket to the bottom of the Hudson River on Friday and pulled up a load of muck contaminated with PCBs — oily industrial lubricants that General Electric spent decades dumping into the river, and decades more fighting to keep there.
It was a big moment — the beginning, after years of legal, scientific and political wrangling, of one of the costliest and most complicated environmental cleanups in American history. It was testimony to the power of sustained advocacy, and a tribute to everyone — private citizens, environmental groups, scientists, politicians from both parties — who had fought to make it happen.
It was also a reminder of the importance of state and federal environmental laws, without which this never would have happened, and of the need to keep them strong in the face of constant pressure to undercut them.
If successful, the cleanup will also add one more chapter to the long and improbably triumphant rebirth of the Hudson, one of the world’s great rivers. Once little more than a sewer for the towns and industries along its banks, the Hudson staged a remarkable comeback after the enactment of the clean water laws of the 1970s. But one blot remained: a large concentration of PCBs in river sediments below two G.E. plants in the Upper Hudson.
The company had dumped these toxic hydrocarbons in the river for decades, back when that was legal. They were banned in the 1970s, but by then they had worked their way into the food chain, the striped bass in particular. The parts of the river saturated with PCBs were identified as a federal Superfund site, with G.E. held responsible for cleaning them up or at least containing them.
But how? The fight raged for nearly two decades — dueling scientists and dueling lawyers — with G.E. arguing that the PCBs would biodegrade and, in any case, were best left alone, and the federal government arguing that they ought to be dredged and buried off-site.
The government ultimately prevailed. The basic cleanup plan was devised by the Clinton administration and ratified by George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, who in 2002 ordered G.E. to get on with the job. Even then, the river waited as the company sought new studies and found new reasons for delay. As recently as March, G.E. was in court trying to argue that the E.P.A. had no constitutional right to tell it what to do.
G.E.’s engineers have tackled the job more willingly than its lawyers. They have built a “dewatering facility” on the Champlain Canal that will process barge loads of dredge material, sending clean water back to the river and dried toxic sediment by train to a landfill in the Texas Panhandle. Phase One of the project, covering 94 acres of the most densely contaminated river bottom, will end in October. Then comes a period of analysis to examine whether the dredging stirred up unacceptable levels of PCBs, as G.E. has warned it might.
It is unclear when Phase Two, which will cover a much bigger area, will begin. G.E. has not yet agreed to do it, and environmentalists, for good historical reasons, are nervous. They worry that since G.E. designed and is running the project, the first phase will go awry somehow and give G.E. an excuse to quit. They worry that the E.P.A. will lack the will to force the job to completion.
The E.P.A.’s current administrator, Lisa Jackson, is a strong environmentalist, and we expect that she will insist that G.E. live up fully to its responsibility. For now, the start of dredging is reason enough to raise a glass of silty Hudson water to toast what we hope will soon be the river’s final break with its toxic past.
New York Times