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

Two Rivers Run Amok

Air Date: Week of

In recent decades the General Electric Corporation has polluted both the Housatonic River in western Massachusetts and New York's Hudson River with cancer-causing chemicals. GE is spending millions to deal with PCB pollution in the Housatonic, but has so far been able to resist calls for a similar clean-up of the Hudson. Amy Eddings says the difference has more to do with politics than pollution levels.


CURWOOD: The Housatonic River in western Massachusetts and the Hudson River in New York don't seem, at first glance, to have a lot in common. The Housatonic is about 50 feet from bank to bank in some sections, while the Hudson can be miles across. The Housatonic is a freshwater river, while the Hudson is an estuary with tides pulling saltwater from the Atlantic upriver for 50 miles. But the 2 rivers do share a tainted fate. Both are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenols, or PCBs, from the same company, General Electric. And while the Housatonic is getting cleaned up, the Hudson River isn't. From member station WNYC in New York City, Amy Eddings explains why.

EDDINGS: A generation ago fishermen were able to make a living off of the Hudson. But that was before New York State officials found dangerously high levels of PCBs in the river's fish and closed the Hudson to commercial fishing in 1976. Cara Lee of Scenic Hudson, a river advocacy group, now gives slide shows to educate people about the way it was.

LEE: Shad fishermen in New York City probably about 1930. I love that photograph. The notion that we could have a harbor that was clean enough for commercial fishing is what this is about.

EDDINGS: Two hundred miles of the Hudson River were designated a Superfund site in 1984. While General Electric has spent over $165 million cleaning up PCBs on old factory sites and floodplains, Federal officials have not ordered the company to scoop any PCBs out of the Hudson, where EPA says GE dumped about a million pounds.

LEE: I'm convinced that if General Electric weren't opposed to dredging in the Hudson River, we would have had the problem cleaned up more than a decade ago.

EDDINGS: The most contaminated area of the Hudson is 40 miles long and 500 feet wide. Environmental advocates say GE doesn't want to dredge because it could cost billions of dollars. General Electric says it opposes dredging, because the Hudson River is recovering on its own. The company points to a recent New York State study that showed declining PCB levels in striped bass in the lower reaches of the river. And GE adds dredging will stir up PCBs and ruin the Hudson's ecosystem. EPA's Region 2 office, which oversees the Hudson, reached a similar conclusion back in 1984. So why is dredging a good idea on the Housatonic River in Pittsfield Massachusetts? GE Vice President Steven Ramsey.

RAMSEY: The piece we are going to do on the Housatonic is only a half-mile long, closest to our plant site, and will have the least impact in terms of harm to the ecosystem, cutting down of trees, scraping up all the life that's on the bottom and what have you.

EDDINGS: GE will also help clean up another mile and a half of the Housatonic. EPA will do the work and will pick up part of the tab. But the small clean-up area wasn't the only thing that encouraged GE to reach this agreement last fall with the EPA.

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EDDINGS: Tim Gray, director of the Housatonic River Initiative, stands on the Lyman Street Bridge in Pittsfield and points at the riverbank. The old GE electrical-transformer plant looms in the distance.

GRAY: Both sides of the river, from here for the next 2 miles down, have back yards abutting right up to the river. So it's really a matter of public health and the fact that kids who live in those houses have grown up playing on the banks of the river with the PCBs in the back yard.

EDDINGS: PCBs cause cancer in animals, and EPA officials say they probably cause cancer in humans, too. They also may lead to neurological and immune system problems, especially in children. GE says PCBs break down naturally, and that it's unlikely that PCBs would act as a carcinogen in humans exposed to the levels existing in the environment today. But EPA's John DeVillars, director of Region 1 in New England, says he didn't want to take any chances.

DeVILLARS: One of the things that we made clear from the beginning of our negotiations and stuck with throughout the negotiations was that we were not going to use Pittsfield and the Housatonic River as a test case for that science. Nothing short of aggressive removal and effort was appropriate.

EDDINGS: GE compromised as a result of political pressure, and agreed to dredge a section of the Housatonic, while DeVillars agreed that EPA would pay for some of the cleanup. That doesn't sit well with environmental advocates, but for the most part they credit DeVillars with the settlement. They say his aggressiveness is a key reason why the Housatonic is getting cleaned up and the Hudson is not. Judith Enck of New York Public Interest Research Group says EPA officials in the New York region have been locked in “analysis paralysis” since 1990, when they decided to review their data on the Hudson.

ENCK: I believe that if EPA officials in Region 2 don't know what the best thing is at this point, in terms of protecting the public from PCB exposure, they should just get another job. Because this has been studied for decades. The science is pretty clear.

EDDINGS: She points out that EPA has pushed back its own deadline for a Hudson River cleanup plan many times in order to conduct more research. But Richard Caspe , who heads EPA's research on the Hudson for Region 2, says he'd prefer to get the science right, and get the best cleanup possible, rather than rush ahead.

CASPE: If I dredge certain areas, will it make a difference? Will the difference be better or worse? How will I do it? Would it be nice if I could wave a magic wand and say, “Here it is, and I know all the answers, I'm all knowing, and this is what we're going to do,”? That would be wonderful. Unfortunately, we don't have those answers.

EDDINGS: The Environmental Protection Agency's New York office expects to publish its final report on the Hudson cleanup in 2001, 5 years past its original deadline. Environmental advocates aren't holding their breaths. They will, however, be watching with interest, and a little envy, when General Electric starts dredging polluted sediments from the Housatonic in the spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.



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