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GE Strikes A Deal to Clean Up PCBs in the Hudson

StoryOctober 07, 2005
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Federal authorities and General Electric have struck a deal on dredging polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, contaminated sediment from the Hudson River. We have a discussion between an EPA administrator and an attorney from Riverkeeper. [includes rush transcript]

Over the years, GE dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson before the Federal government banned the substance in 1977. The chemicals came from GE’s plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. PCBs are classified as a probable cause of cancer.

The dredging is now scheduled to begin in 2007 and yesterday’s settlement calls for GE to pay the government up to $78 million for costs of the clean-up. The EPA called the settlement “a historic agreement” and GE said in a statement to the Associated Press that the deal shows that it is committed to working with environmental regulators and the state.” But environmental groups have criticized the agreement pointing out that it only requires GE to pay for 10 percent of the clean-up.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined on the phone by Robert Goldstein. He is the Senior Attorney with the group, Riverkeeper. We are also joined by Alan Steinberg. He is the Regional Administrator for the EPA. GE declined our request for an interview. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALAN STEINBERG: Good morning.

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: Thank you, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to first start with Alan Steinberg, why you think this is an historic settlement, and what you think the government and the public — how they benefit?

ALAN STEINBERG: Thank you, Juan. Let me start off by saying that this agreement gets GE into the river to, at long last, begin the dredging process. And also, it provides compensation for a large portion of our past and projected oversight costs. We are committed to the complete clean-up. Let there be no mistake about that, and if GE does not agree to do phase 2, and this has to be emphasized, we retain all our enforcement authorities and powers, and we will compel a completion of phase 2 on the part of GE.

Again, GE is going to build a sediment processing facility in Fort Edward, will carry out the first phase of dredging. And not only that, a roadmap is laid out for GE to do phase 2, because they’re required to pay $5 million to begin the process of establishing infrastructure at that point to do phase 2. The commitment is there. We are working with the locals up in Fort Edward in terms of developing all the standards — air, noise, light and navigation — and at long last, you are going to see the Hudson being remediated. We think this is an historic moment for the Hudson River.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Robert Goldstein, Senior Attorney with Riverkeeper, your concerns about the settlement?

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: Well, first of all, I really appreciate Mr. Steinberg’s comments. Don’t get me wrong, I want this clean-up to go ahead as soon as possible. And frankly, if GE approached the clean-up with the same zeal that they approach their profit-making ventures, I would be satisfied, but they are still kicking and screaming. They are still challenging the basic superfund law in court. They are still challenging various regulations that require them to dispose of sediments in certain ways. So, I’m not convinced that GE is on board here.

And secondly, I’m concerned with this particular agreement that the devil here is in the details. And the details are not in the settlement agreement that was announced yesterday. All the headlines are going to say, GE has agreed to the clean-up. But the real issue here are the details that are contained in the intermediate design report and will be in the final design report that detail how GE will go about doing this clean-up.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, could you tell us a little bit, for those who are not familiar with the contamination situation in the Hudson River, how extensive is it? What have been the health impacts or environmental impacts, and how long has this case been going on?

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: This case has been going on an awful long time. It was first pointed out by one of the founders of Riverkeeper, I guess in the 1980s, early 1980’s. And it’s had significant health impacts. If you go up and you listen anecdotally to the people up there, and they tell you about all their relatives and neighbors that have had cancer, it is a significant health risk and remains so. And the sad thing is that it will remain so after this agreement is carried out, if it ever is, because there are sediments on the flood plane that contain PCBs. This agreement is not going to remove all of the PCBs from the upper Hudson region. It’s going to take a select amount of PCBs from the river. And what we concerned about and what we hope the EPA is watching very carefully is how GE is going to test to determine whether it’s actually removed the PCBs or not. This is a big concern for us.

ALAN STEINBERG: Juan, if I may, I have a lot of respect for Robert, and we’re actually in a way on the same side as Robert is in a lot of ways. We share his concern about the Hudson. We admire the fact that the Riverkeeper has been so focused on this. So, we don’t really, per se, have a disagreement with Robert or Riverkeeper. And we’re not here to defend the past actions of GE, let me make that clear.

Where we do have a difference is on how to get this done. And if you are going to litigate everything, you are just going to delay the clean-up forever. We now have a commitment from GE to do phase 1. That’s the key. And we are retaining all our enforcement powers to force them to do phase 2. Robert is right. We have to maintain very strict oversight here. And not only that, we want public comment from the Riverkeeper, from Robert. There is going to be a public comment period once the official notice is published in the federal register. And Robert, and I haven’t had a chance to do this yet, I have been on the job a month, but I hope to meet with you in my office and hear your concerns. Again, we’re not really at odds with the Riverkeeper. We are here basically to do the job, to carry out the commitment to remediate the Hudson, and we think this agreement has actually accelerated the pace of the clean-up and represents a very good first step.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Mr. Steinberg, you say you are not here to defend GE. Obviously, GE stock went up considerably yesterday after the announcement, so the company obviously feels that it’s in its interests to make this settlement. And the superfund law has been, or at least money for superfund clean-up has been, as I understand it, drastically cut back in recent years. Is the federal government — is there money in the budget for the EPA to be able to take up most of the costs of this clean-up?

ALAN STEINBERG: We are not supposed to bear the costs of the clean-up. GE is supposed to bear the costs of the clean-up. And if phase 2 is done, something like 94% to 95% of the recovery will have been made. Our expenses are in terms of supervising, oversight over GE and we are being reimbursed a substantial percentage of those amounts. So, the money is there for us to do the supervisory work both — and the oversight — both in terms of the federal budget and in terms of what GE is required to reimburse us. I don’t have anything to do with the price of GE’s stock. You know, that’s not what I’m looking at here. I’m looking, as Robert is, in terms of the remediation of the Hudson River, and we are going to be most vigilant. Let me indicate this: This is a huge, high priority of the EPA. There should be no question about that. From the administrator, Steve Johnson, on down, this is a major priority of the EPA.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Robert Goldstein, the amount of money that is going to be dedicated to the clean-up, do you think it is sufficient? And could you talk a little bit about this phase 1 and phase 2, as you understand it?

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: Well, it’s not a question of the amount of money that GE would ultimately have to spend if they did phase 2. I’m sure that if they do it properly, it will cost a fortune. But it’s the question of what GE’s incentive is here. And they have a lot of hazardous waste sites around the country. This is going to be a test, a very public test for them to see if they can get out of having to complete this clean-up. If they come back to the EPA under this agreement and say, 'Hey, you know, we can't do it, it’s impossible,’ you know, there’s a whole — there are pages and pages in the agreement about how that situation is rectified. And I’m not too confident that, you know, this administration or the next administration, with great respect to Mr. Steinberg, I’m not confident that the administrations are willing or able to push GE to comply, or as you said, if they don’t comply, I’m not confident that the government has the wherewithal or the desire to step in and do the clean-up themselves.

ALAN STEINBERG: Just responding to what Robert said, —

JUAN GONZALEZ: Alan Steinberg from the EPA.

ALAN STEINBERG: Yes, just responding to what Robert said, and I understand his concerns, I can assure all the listeners that EPA from the very top on down, from Steve Johnson, the administrator, to me as regional administrator on down, EPA does have the commitment that we will compel the performance of phase 2 by GE, if they do not voluntarily comply. And we do have the wherewithal to go to court and to force compliance on the part of GE if they will not do phase 2. We do have that desire. We do have that wherewithal. The priority is there. And we welcome the involvement of Robert and the Riverkeeper to basically give us their input. If they think along the way that there are certain aspects of the clean-up they don’t like, let us know. We’re a public agency. We welcome public input.

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: Well, if I can respond to that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sure. Robert Goldstein from Riverkeeper.

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: Again, I appreciate Mr. Steinberg’s position in this and his apparent goodwill in dealing with Riverkeeper and other people who are interested. We’ll have a test of that. We have submitted comments on the design report, and we want to see what EPA’s response. If they’re going to take the ball and run with it, you know, I’ll have great respect for Mr. Steinberg’s office if they do that. And I urge them to take into account the things that we have already asked for in terms of comments on this design report and to make GE tow the line with regard to them.

ALAN STEINBERG: I hear you, Robert, and again I look forward to working with you. I have been on the job since September 7. It’s been a very busy time in my life, and this is really one of my top priorities, and I look forward to your input.


JUAN GONZALEZ: I also would like to ask Robert Goldstein, since Riverkeeper has been also very involved in the issue of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant up there. There have been recently some problems with the plant, a few weeks ago, another leak. Your continuing concerns over the situation with that plant?

ROBERT GOLDSTEIN: Well, it seems every day there’s a new leak or new problem. We have had the problem with the sirens that have been recurring over the summer months. We have leaks. We have — the infrastructure is getting too old. And here we are faced with the prospect of re-licensing the plant based on rules that would absolutely exclude it from being initially licensed. If this were a new plant in this area, 50 million people, there’s no way that a license would be approved at this time. Now, we are dealing with an old plant with lots of problems, and the re-licensing procedure that is going to — about to begin is just inadequate to protect us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Robert Goldstein, we’re going to have to wrap it there. Thanks very much.

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