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GE, EPA compromise hailed by enviro community

Dec 24, 2010 7:25 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Hudson River dredging image from the federal EPA."][/caption]It's not everyday you get environmentalists praising an admitted polluter for compromising. Then again, stories such as General Electric's payments for dredging of the Hudson River north of Albany to clear up years of carcinogenic PCB deposits are rare, themselves. The Times Union this morning has a story about how an announcement that the General Electric Co. had agreed to the Environmental Protection Agency's new guidelines for dredging toxic PCBs from the Hudson River is being hailed as a major victory for the river's future, despite that agreement being a compromise. "This is truly a watershed moment for the Hudson River and all the people of New York," Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, is quoted as saying. "I congratulate GE and the EPA for reaching this milestone." GE informed EPA officials Thursday that the company will perform the final phase of the dredging project under new technical guidelines for removing toxic PCBs from the river bottom. Have we entered a whole new age with this compromise thing, now?

"We're pleased that GE opted in," said Stuart Gruskin, executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "We think it's a major step forward and we're looking forward to continue working with GE and EPA to ensure the best possible outcome."

"GE has consistently said it wanted to complete the dredging and now looks forward to doing so under terms that achieve the scientific objectives of dredging in a practical and cost-effective way," said Ann R. Klee, GE's vice president of corporate environmental programs.

Last Friday, EPA officials gave GE a deadline of Jan. 14 to sign on to the revised technical guidelines for the second phase of dredging along a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River from Fort Edward to Troy. That second and final phase is projected to take five to seven more years.

"We're delighted that GE has made this decision to finish the Hudson River cleanup and we commend them," said Judith Enck, an EPA regional administrator. "It's a real tribute to many people who have worked for decades to get us to this point, although we have a lot of hard work ahead of us when dredging continues in the spring."

Enck acknowledged that the negotiated compromise initially drew criticism from environmentalists who complained the EPA was too conciliatory to GE in the revised guidelines.

"We did have to strike a balance, but at no time did we sacrifice environmental quality and public health," Enck said.

Meanwhile, the unfinished portion of the first phase of dredging is expected to resume in May.

The phase two dredging plan stipulates fewer passes by dredging machines and more precise monitoring. EPA said these rules would result in removing about 95 percent of the polychlorinated biphenyls, suspected carcinogens that can adversely affect the health of people who eat PCB-contaminated fish caught in the Hudson despite advisories against eating one's catch.

Environmentalists initially were critical of the EPA for being too lenient on GE in the new guidelines, which places a capping limit of 11 percent of the total project area on phase two of dredging, in addition to 10 percent that can be capped due to rock impediments or sunken logs, for a total of 21 percent that can be capped. That's in addition to roughly 37 percent of the area capped on 10 PCB hot spots completed out of 18 identified in the initial phase of dredging last year in the area around Fort Edward. Capping involves covering over areas of PCBs that could not be dredged with a thick, heavy layer of sand and soil. The new rules require that GE must check those capped areas for erosion every 10 years.

Technical experts with the EPA and GE have been conferring for months to determine the best way to remove the most PCBs possible, given the challenges of working in an ever-changing river and an irregular bottom clogged with debris.

GE said it had spent $561 million on dredging thus far and in Thursday's announcement said it would take an after-tax charge of about $500 million in the fourth quarter of 2010 to help fund the remainder of the project.

"We are proud of having met each and every one of our many commitments to EPA on this project, and we will continue to do so," Klee said.