A Tale of Three Governors and a Tainted River

This Aug. 8, 2015 photo shows the Hudson River near an abandoned iron mine in the Adirondacks in Tahawus, NY. A short-line ra
This Aug. 8, 2015 photo shows the Hudson River near an abandoned iron mine in the Adirondacks in Tahawus, NY. A short-line railroad plans to supplement its revenues by storing hundreds of empty oil tank cars on unused tracks that end at the mine. Environmentalists are against the plan, saying it would hurt tourism in a place that’s popular with hikers and paddlers. The tracks are close to the river in some places but the rail operator says the tank cars will be in a forested area out of public view. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)

In 1976 New York Gov. Hugh Carey approved a deal with General Electric exonerating the company from responsibility under New York State law for cleaning up the toxic mess it had created by dumping PCBs in the Hudson River over a 40-year span. Under pressure from GE, which threatened to pull jobs out of the state, Carey let the company off the hook for a paltry $3 million in research funds. Apparently not big on science-based decision-making, Carey dismissed the risks of PCBs, saying he wouldn't mind drinking a glass of the chemical.

Carey's successor, Mario Cuomo, took a different tack, calling on the federal government to use its authority to get GE to clean up the health-threatening contaminants. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson a Superfund site in 1983, GE persuaded the agency to adopt a "No Action" strategy regarding removal of polluted river sediments. Armed with data from advances made in quantifying the harm PCBs cause humans and wildlife, Gov. Cuomo successfully petitioned the EPA to revisit this decision, laying the groundwork for its eventual order for GE to undertake a cleanup. Unfortunately, GE used its lobbying clout with the EPA to limit the resulting cleanup (authorized in 2002) to less than 65 percent of the contaminants.

With the long-term health of the Hudson now hanging in the balance, which of these men will New York's current governor, Andrew Cuomo, choose as his role model?

As GE nears completion of the EPA-mandated portion of the project, it has begun dismantling its massive cleanup infrastructure--despite the additional dredging still needed to achieve the goals set by the EPA, much less a healthy river. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation and two federal agencies charged by law to serve as "trustees" of the Hudson's natural resources damaged by GE's contamination have publicly stated that the EPA cleanup is inadequate. To restore fuller public use and enjoyment of the river--as well as to make its fish safe to eat--it could take as little as two additional seasons of dredging. Without it, the Hudson's recovery will be delayed for generations.

At the same time, we've learned that GE scientists systematically under-reported PCBs in fish, a key measure of the current cleanup's effectiveness. Their incorrect testing methods indicate toxicity levels significantly lower than actual, increasing the risks to people all along the river, especially those who catch fish for subsistence despite health warnings. EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck has rushed to defend the integrity of GE's cleanup, despite this breach of protocol, while failing to rebut the company's patently false claims that it has no further responsibility for addressing the damage its chemicals have caused the Hudson.

Under Superfund rules, GE remains legally and financially responsible for restoring the river's health. While the trustees have not disclosed the dollar value of the liability, it's likely in the billions of dollars. Unfortunately, neither New York State nor the federal trustees have taken action to compel GE to undertake a comprehensive cleanup, nor have they asked the EPA to halt the company from decommissioning its cleanup operation. Regional Administrator Enck has indicated she's waiting to hear from the trustees before taking any action to halt GE's premature dismantling of this infrastructure.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo unquestionably has the authority as a federally designated natural resource trustee to ask Enck to prevent GE from decommissioning the cleanup facilities. He also has the authority to take action against GE for failing to clean up the Champlain Canal, once a vibrant commercial shipping channel now choked with PCBs and too shallow to accommodate deep-draft vessels.

But with a decision imminent on the fate of the river's future, GE has made a show of interest in possibly moving its headquarters back to New York. Could this be a coincidence, or is the company up to its old tricks, playing the jobs-versus-environment card that led Gov. Carey to let GE off the hook four decades ago?

But cleaning up the Hudson is a job engine. It provides direct employment for an estimated 500 workers and engages approximately 200 companies in the region. Furthermore, a complete cleanup promises a brighter economic future for communities all along the Hudson, especially those upriver hoping to proceed with long-delayed waterfront revitalization plans. And dredging the Champlain Canal would allow the resumption of cargo shipping on this vital link between New York Harbor and the Great Lakes.

Mario Cuomo once said, "I talk and talk and talk, and I haven't taught people in 50 years what my father taught me by example in one week."

Let's hope Andrew looks to his father's courageous example by rejecting GE's cynical tactics, immediately calling on the EPA to stop the company from dismantling its facilities, and using his authority and persuasive powers as governor to require the company to reach the goal the elder Cuomo hoped for--a clean, healthy Hudson.