The EPA Thinks So. New York State’s DEC Says No Way.

Published on Apr 22, 2019 3:09PM EDT

Lissa Harris

Few environmental cleanup efforts in US history have been as extensive—or as emotional—as General Electric’s years-long, $1.7 billion dredging project on the Hudson River to remove millions of pounds of PCBs dumped between the 1940s and ’70s.

Last week, that project hit a major milestone—or a major roadblock, depending on your perspective. On April 11, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a Certificate of Completion to GE for the dredging conducted so far. The certificate was a major victory for GE; the company promptly gave a statement announcing that the dredging had been a success. For New York State, whose own Department of Environmental Conservation holds that the river is still unacceptably contaminated, the EPA’s decision was a slap in the face.

The EPA plans to study the impact of the cleanup effort on the river and its wildlife. Agency officials say that GE could still be compelled to dredge more, or take other actions, if further research shows the cleanup has failed to achieve results. That’s not enough for Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Attorney General Letitia James, who announced within hours of the EPA’s decision that they intend to sue the federal agency.

Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson, the environmental groups that have long been at the forefront of the effort to restore the Hudson River, were also quick to condemn the EPA’s action. In a statement issued about the decision, Riverkeeper explains how the granting of the certificate will make it legally more difficult to compel GE to do more cleanup in future:

Issuing this certificate triggers a “covenant not to sue,” which will severely limit the EPA’s ability to compel GE to conduct additional cleanup action. Therefore, even if the EPA finds after evaluating several additional years of data that the goals of the cleanup will not be met—and that remaining PCBs continue to harm communities and wildlife—it will be more difficult for the EPA to hold GE accountable. In fact, issuing the Certificate of Completion without a fully supported finding that the remedy and the cleanup goals have been met is inconsistent with Superfund law.

Riverkeeper and the New York State DEC don’t always see eye to eye, but on the matter of the Hudson River PCB cleanup, they have been unanimous: GE’s work is not yet done.

New York isn’t the only state where federal and state officials are currently at odds over corporate pollution. Not far from the river, in Edgewater, New Jersey, residents have complained about toxic fumes released by Honeywell’s ongoing cleanup of the Quanta Superfund site. Here too, state officials appear to be taking risks to human health and the impacts of pollution more seriously than their federal counterparts.

According to a report by NorthJersey.com, the EPA has assured residents that despite the smells coming from the site, levels of naphthalene—the main chemical in mothballs—were merely a nuisance, not a danger to human health. But a recent health report issued by the state of New Jersey found otherwise: The state Department of Health has declared that naphthalene levels near the site were high enough to potentially cause harmful short-term health effects” in local residents.

River at a Crossroads

This week, American Rivers named the Hudson as one of America’s ten “Most Endangered Rivers of 2019.” Each year since 1984, the organization has published their Endangered Rivers report, which aims a spotlight on regions where looming critical policy decisions threaten a river and the natural and human communities that surround it. The Hudson River last appeared on the list in 2001, when the GE dredging project was being weighed as a solution to PCB contamination.

The key decision that landed the Hudson on the list for 2019 is an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build a massive storm surge barrier separating the river and its tidal estuary, New York Harbor, from the Atlantic Ocean. The proposal is one of a number of alternatives currently being evaluated by the corps to deal with the accumulating impacts of climate change and sea level rise on New York City and the surrounding region.

Conservationists are deeply alarmed by the proposal, which would restrict the tidal flow of the river, partially blocking the movement of both water and marine life. In a statement released on Tuesday, Riverkeeper roundly condemned the proposal:

“For the Hudson, the stakes in this decision cannot be overstated. These storm barriers pose a truly existential threat to the Hudson. We cannot–must not–allow these barriers to be built. The twice-daily tides are the essential respiration and the heartbeat of this living ecosystem. The mouth of the river must remain open and unrestricted, as it has been for millennia,” said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper Patrol Boat Captain and Vice President of Advocacy. “The Hudson has never faced a threat even close to this magnitude.”

In a 2018 article about the storm barrier proposal, The Hudson Independent discussed a similar structure that was built in the 1980s, the Eastern Scheldt Barrier in Holland—to the detriment of the river’s tidal estuary, conservationists say. Communities outside the proposed Hudson River barrier’s zone of protection are also worried:

New York State As­sem­bly­man Steven Otis wor­ries about what will hap­pen when the bar­ri­ers close. His con­stituents, in­clud­ing Ma­maro­neck, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Rye and oth­ers, are out­side the wall. “Where will the wa­ter go?” he asked. “To the Sound Shore com­mu­ni­ties.”

The corps has held a series of public hearings in New York and New Jersey to discuss the storm surge protection proposals. The Brooklyn Eagle has more on the timeline of decision making on the proposal, which will not be complete until at least 2022.

For more background on the efforts to clean up PCBs in the Hudson River, see our January story, “Cleaning Up The Hudson.”

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