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Critics Continue Adding Voices To Challenge Of Hudson River Cleanup Results


There's a big fight in upstate New York over the future of the Hudson River. Over the last decade, the federal government forced General Electric to spend hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up tons of toxic PCBs - oily, toxic chemicals the company dumped in the river. It was seen as a model program. But as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, a growing number of critics say it didn't work.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It's a bitter-cold day in Hudson Falls, N.Y., and I'm down by the icy river bank. This is a stretch of water the state of New York says is still dangerously polluted. Basil Seggos heads New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

BASIL SEGGOS: The levels of contamination of both fish and sediment have remained troublingly high.

MANN: His office released a big new study last month concluding that levels of toxic PCBs haven't declined much despite six years of dredging and other restoration work.

SEGGOS: That doesn't mean that the original dredging was not worth it. But then you have to assess whether or not it worked and whether more is needed.

MANN: General Electric hauled out tons of contaminated muck, spending roughly $2 billion on one of the biggest environmental cleanup efforts the U.S. has ever seen. This Superfund site sprawls over more than 200 miles of the Hudson River. The Environmental Protection Agency is doing its own research, trying to decide whether that work was good enough that they can call the project complete.

But Manna Jo Greene, an environmental activist, says the report by scientists working for New York state shows that a clean bill of health for the Hudson would be premature.

MANNA JO GREENE: The results are disappointing in that a more robust cleanup is needed. EPA must not issue a certificate of completion to General Electric because that would let them off the hook.

MANN: But there's growing skepticism in these old industrial towns along the Upper Hudson that more dredging and more cleanup will do any good.


JAY HARRINGTON: They should've left it alone from the get-go.

MANN: Jay Harrington lives right next to the river. The backyard where his dogs play is bordered by the contaminated river bank.

I mean, you live near the water. You say you've boated on it all these years. Do you worry about the health effects on you?

HARRINGTON: It's too late now.

MANN: You hear this over and over here, a kind of resignation. GE spread PCBs all over this valley before people realized the industrial chemical causes deformities in fish and other wildlife and carries a risk of cancer for humans. In a coffee shop nearby, Art and William Wells are eating lunch.

ART WELLS: How are you going to get it all out of the water? I just don't see how.

WILLIAM WELLS: I'm thinking with him - waste of time. I live right behind GE. I'm glowing. Can't you see me?


MANN: General Electric meanwhile is lobbying the EPA hard, hoping to convince federal officials that enough progress has been made, that more dredging isn't needed. By some estimates, another round of cleanup could cost GE $500 million at a time when the corporation is struggling financially. GE spokesman Mark Behan says the cleanup did more good than critics are willing to admit, and he accuses New York state of moving the goalposts, setting new, stricter standards to measure the cleanup's success.

MARK BEHAN: Based on the new standard it's applying, New York state now says they don't meet the threshold, but they did meet the EPA threshold.

MANN: Basil Seggos, New York's conservation commissioner, says that's just not true.

SEGGOS: Our research in the last two years followed the exact same protocols as the EPA-mandated protocols that GE followed. So to suggest otherwise is frankly absurd.

MANN: EPA officials who weren't available to talk because of the partial government shutdown will play referee here, deciding what additional work, if any, has to be done. Their final answer is expected this year. And whichever way they rule, it'll likely be tested by a lawsuit. This debate and the science emerging from the Hudson cleanup are being watched closely. Around the country, officials are preparing other big dredging projects on rivers contaminated with PCBs. Brian Mann, NPR News, Hudson Falls, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.