BY YANNIC RACK |The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is speeding up its probe into whether General Electric’s cleanup of the Hudson River was a success, giving in to pressure from environmental groups who say the company needs to do more to clear the waterway from chemicals.
The $2 billion six-year dredging project concluded earlier this year and GE claims it successfully removed the dangerous PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, it dumped into the river before 1977.
Instead of waiting until 2017, the E.P.A. announced this week that it will now start early next year with its inspection of whether the dangerous pollutant — which has been linked to cancer as well as reproductive, neurological and hormonal disorders — has been successfully removed from the river.
“I’m glad the E.P.A. has shown the common sense to fast track its review of GE’s dredging in the Hudson River before it lets the company off the hook for bringing the river to the brink of extinction,” state Senator Brad Hoylman, who is a member of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, said on Dec. 23.
Hoylman has long advocated for the cleanup and, along with two dozen other elected officials, sent letters to GE C.E.O. Jeffrey Immelt, as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo in July, urging the company to go beyond its court-mandated dredging requirement.
The 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River from Glens Falls, which is about 40 miles north of Albany, down to the Battery is a federal Superfund site because of the PCBs — which means GE is required to clean it up long term.
“This conforms to the schedule we understood E.P.A. planned to follow,” GE spokesperson Mark Behan said of the new timeline, which would see the agency finish its assessment before April 2017.
GE had announced in October that its crews removed more than 300,000 pounds of PCBs from the river, completing the six-year operation.
“We are confident that the Hudson dredging project has achieved E.P.A.’s goals of protecting human health and the environment,” Behan said.
Although the E.P.A. study will now be expedited, GE can still go ahead with dismantling the plant it used to process the dredged sediment.
The change of gears at the E.P.A. comes after a slate of environmental groups, including Scenic Hudson, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, met with agency officials earlier this month to express their concern about the state of the operation.
In a Dec. 18 letter to the environmental groups, Mathy Stanislaus, who oversees the E.P.A.’s Superfund cleanup programs, laid out the new schedule for the review and said that the study will also include more public participation, as well as an assessment of current conditions in the Hudson.
The agency also notified the groups that if the review determines the cleanup has not made the river “protective of human health and the environment,” as required under Superfund law, it would consider additional remedial actions.
The environmentalists praised the E.P.A.’s agreement as a major step forward, but also warned that contamination remains at unsafe levels.
“Everyone recognizes that the current PCB remediation is not adequate to protect the Hudson River and people who, despite the health advisories, continue to eat Hudson River fish,” Peter Gross, executive director of Clearwater, said.
The chemical has contaminated wildlife to the point that it is not recommended for women under the age of 50 and children under the age of 15 to eat fish from the river.
“For the better part of a century, General Electric treated the Hudson River as its own personal dumping ground, spilling millions of pounds of toxic PCBs into the river throughout most of the last century,” Hoylman said.
“The E.P.A. has heeded the call of advocacy groups and elected officials like me,” he said, “but we’ll need to keep up the pressure to make sure GE fully compensates the people of New York for one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time.”