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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered General Electric to clean a 40 mile stretch of the Hudson River that the company polluted with PCBs. Host Steve Curwood speaks with New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert about the latest developments in this story.


CURWOOD: The Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that General Electric must clean up a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River in upstate New York. Decades ago, GE factories released thousands of tons of polychlorinated bi-phenols, PCBs, into the Hudson. The chemicals persist in river sediments. GE and the federal government have wrestled for years over whether it's wiser to dig out the toxic chemicals or let them remain on the river bottom. I am joined now by Elizabeth Kolbert, who recently wrote about this story for The New Yorker. Hello, Elizabeth.


CURWOOD: Now, today the Hudson River is definitely healthier and cleaner than it was, what, ten, 20 years ago. How much of a problem are PCBs there?

KOLBERT: Well, they remain a significant problem, especially in the sense of contaminating the fish. There is a ban on eating the fish for a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson south of the plants where GE dumped these PCBs. And then, throughout the entire river there is a health advisory that warns women of childbearing age and children to eat no fish from the Hudson. Also, I should add that some communities draw their drinking water from the Hudson, and that's a problem, too.

CURWOOD: How much of a problem are PCBs themselves?

KOLBERT: Well, that's been studied at great length for the last 20 years, and there are roughly three areas of concern. One is whether they cause cancer. They've been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, although the human data is somewhat more equivocal. They have been linked to developmental problems in children, reading delays, IQ, lower IQ. And they mimic certain human hormones, and there's a lot of concern about whether they may cause reproductive problems.

CURWOOD: Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is focusing on what they call "hot spots," about a 40-mile stretch there, right? How is the EPA telling GE to clean all this up?

KOLBERT: Well, they haven't really specified exactly what technology they would use. But in essence, what you do is, you go in and you literally dig up part of the river sediment. You try to do it as specifically as you can in terms of where the greatest concentration of these chemicals are. And then you run all this, you know, muck through a treatment system until you get down the really, to the PCBs, virtually. And then you have to dispose of those PCBs.

CURWOOD: In fact, where would they put these PCBs?

KOLBERT: Well, they've said that they want them to go to an already licensed facility, toxic waste dump, basically. And so, a lot of people, I think, think that they would end up in western New York, where there is a dump. But we're not sure where it will end up.

CURWOOD: Now, GE says that doing this dredging, this removal, is a mistake. That all this stirring up of the PCBs and then disposing of it really poses more of a health hazard than just simply leaving it there and letting natural sedimentation, the action of the river, cover over these PCBs and encapsulate them out of harm's way. How valid is that argument?

KOLBERT: Well, that's at the heart of the EPA's decision. They have decided that argument is not valid, and they've done a lot of study of this. And they've decided that the PCBs that are on the river bottom in the hot spots are a major source of contamination to the rest of the river. So they have decided that that argument, as it were, doesn't hold water. However, there are, you know, reasonable people who would question, I suppose, whether you're really going to achieve what you want to achieve with a project like this. But you know, I think GE would have a lot more credibility on this topic had they not fought this every, every step of the way, using virtually every argument known to man.

CURWOOD: It seems to some, to many, that it might well be in GE's financial interest to oppose dredging. It's going to be pretty pricey. How much do you think the cost of this is influencing GE's position here?

KOLBERT: I think it's influencing its position a lot. It was estimated as a half a billion dollar project, and that's just, you know, sort of today's estimate. And I think everyone thinks, well, by the time this is over, that that will be a lot higher. And I think what's probably even more significant is, GE probably didn't want really any decision at all, dredging or not dredging. Because once you get a decision you open yourself up to what is called "a natural resources damage claim" of this sort that Exxon had to pay after the Valdez spill. And that can run to a tremendous amount of money, a billion or more.

CURWOOD: Now that the EPA has issued this cleanup mandate, what happens next? I'm saying, this is the final days of the Clinton administration. Those Clinton people aren't going to be around to push this through. There must be some politics involved here.

KOLBERT: Yeah, that's a very, very significant point. GE and its allies in Congress really tried to push this off until after the Clinton administration, hoping for a more sympathetic administration. And the sort of last stand that the EPA took, even after sort of submitting to a lot of delays, was no, they were not going to put this off until after the administration had left. So they issued it in the final days of the Clinton administration. However, there is, by law, a six-month comment period before which this decision cannot be finalized. So, it is going to be left to the new administration to finalize this decision, and that's very significant. And we don't know what's going to happen at the end of those six months.

CURWOOD: Before we go, I just have to ask you: how is this playing locally to folks who live along the Hudson?

KOLBERT: Well, there's a lot of very, very intense emotion along the Hudson, both ways. And even individuals you meet can have very conflicting feelings about it. Because people live along the river and they love the river, and they feel it's been wrecked to a certain extent. On the other hand, they're going to have to live with the dredging, and they're very, very worried about that, too. So, it's really split a lot of communities.

CURWOOD: Elizabeth Kolbert's article "The River" appeared in the December 4th issue of "The New Yorker." Elizabeth, thanks for taking this time to talk with us.

KOLBERT: Thank you.



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