ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Dredging crews left the Hudson River two years ago, but criticism of the $1.7 billion cleanup is bubbling up again.
Advocates who want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to order crews back on the river are expected in Poughkeepsie on Wednesday night as the agency holds a public meeting on its review of the Superfund project.
The EPA’s five-year review, released June 1, is the latest flashpoint related to General Electric’s cleanup of poly-chlorinated biphenyls it discharged in the river until the mid-1970s. PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. They are a probable carcinogen and were banned in 1977.
The EPA review doesn’t order more cleanup but the agency is careful to say that’s not a final decision.
Here’s a look at what’s at stake and what could happen in the wake of GE’s six-year cleanup.
DID THE CLEANUP WORK?
Boston-based GE removed 2.75 million cubic yards of sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river north of Albany under a Superfund agreement with the EPA. The PCB contamination in the river was worse than initially thought and crews ended up removing additional sediment.
Still, at least 35 percent of the PCBs weren’t removed, according to New York state environmental officials. Many environmental groups and New York elected officials have pushed for a broader cleanup.
The EPA threw cold water on that idea in the review, concluding that based on the data so far, the cleanup will protect human health and the environment in the long term. The agency said they should have a better idea with another eight years or more of data.
WHEN WILL THE RIVER BE CLEAN?
The cleanup was designed to eventually make it safe to eat fish from the river again. There are disagreements over how long that will take.
The EPA said this month it could take 55 years or more before all species of fish in the river are clean enough to eat once a week. The agency estimates that more aggressive dredging would shave a few years off the recovery time.
Critics contend the EPA is discounting other data projecting that the river’s cleanup will take far longer. Others say even 55 years is too long.
“It’s ludicrous to expect the public to wait 55 years to have a river they can fish in,” state environmental commissioner Basil Seggos told The Associated Press. Seggos said the EPA needs to perform a full accounting of river contamination.
WHERE WOULD THEY DREDGE?
Even though dredging was exclusively on the upper river north of Albany, a 200-mile stretch downriver to New York City is considered a Superfund site.
The focus on the fight over whether to dredge more has focused on the upper river. But the EPA gave fodder to advocates who want broader action because the review said more data is needed to understand the slower recovery rate on the lower Hudson.
“We’re basically saying ‘Let’s do an investigation and find out how to fix the lower river.’ We know that the dredging in the upper 40 miles isn’t fixing the lower river,” said Riverkeeper legal director Richard Webster.
WHAT COULD EPA DO?
EPA acting regional administrator Catherine McCabe said flatly after the review’s release that “at this time, we do not believe that the data, the science or the law support the EPA imposing a requirement on GE to do more dredging.” GE has stressed “significantly reduced PCB levels” in the river.
The EPA declined to address specific questions for this story but said in a prepared statement that “all comments will be reviewed and considered before the five-year review report is finalized.”
If nothing else, the public comment period provides a window for critics to try to create political momentum. Seggos said it is important for “vigorous” public participation, and environmental groups like Scenic Hudson have been promoting the importance of speaking out during the public comment period.
“There will be another five-year review in five years’ time,” Webster said. “But we don’t want to be stuck in an endless cycle of five-year reviews.”
A second meeting is scheduled for July 19 in Saratoga Springs. Public comment will be accepted until Sept. 1.