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EPA Orders Hudson River Cleanup

Global warming graphic, with photo of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman 4-3-01
AP / CBS
The Bush administration on Tuesday ordered tons of PCBs removed from New York's upper Hudson River, setting in motion one of the largest dredging operations in the nation's history.

General Electric Co., which dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river before the substance was banned by the federal government in 1977, bitterly opposes dredging. The cleanup is expected to cost the company some $500 million.

The final decision from the Environmental Protection Agency mirrors a plan formulated by the Clinton administration and endorsed by EPA last summer.

"We are going forward with this important cleanup," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said.

The decision caps a quarter-century of false starts and conflicting studies over what to do with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, buried in the river bottom.

PCBs, used as insulation and a coolant, have been linked to cancer in laboratory animals. The EPA classifies the oily substance as a probable carcinogen and says PCBs pose risks to wildlife and to people who eat fish from the Hudson.

GE released PCBs from its plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, about 40 miles north of Albany. The cleanup will include locations in that stretch, reaching almost down to the capital.

The EPA said it transmitted its decision to state officials, who now have 15 business days to review it before it is released officially. If GE refuses to go along with the cleanup, the EPA can start the work on its own and charge the company up to triple the cost.

The first step is to work out engineering details of the plan to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment, enough to fill about 40 football fields 30 feet deep. That could take several years.

Upstate communities where the dredging would occur are among the strongest opponents, fearing long lines of dump trucks and related activities will disrupt everyday life. They also do not want contaminated mud placed in their landfills.

A 197-mile stretch of the Hudson River from Hudson Falls to the tip of lower Manhattan was placed on the federal Superfund cleanup list in 1984 after PCBs were found in the riverbed. The EPA did not order a cleanup, choosing instead to monitor the situation.

PCB levels slowly decreased. GE said the river was cleansing itself and dredging would only make the problem worse, but environmentalists argued PCBs levels were dangerously high and needed to be cleaned quickly to protect public health.

Eventually the Clinton administration came up with a dredging plan last year. In the public comment period that followed, tens of thousands of opinions poured in. The huge response prompted the EPA to push back its final decision, initially scheduled for the spring. The decision was delayed again by the September terrorist attacks in New York.

GE's options shrink now that the final decision is in. The federal Superfund law, under which the dredging is being ordered, is largely immune to lawsuits. GE has, however, file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of the Superfund law itself.

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