Residents of New York’s Hudson River Valley are now looking to the administrations of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump — as well as continued support from state and federal legislators — for leadership in halting two major threats to the region’s public health, safety and economic vitality: General Electric’s cancer-causing PCB contamination in Hudson River sediments and fish, and a U.S. Coast Guard proposal that would turn the river into a parking lot for barges carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials. Unfortunately, despite his vaunted environmental record, President Obama dropped the ball on these issues.
The Cuomo administration and New York’s leading elected officials — including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney and Nita Lowey and 12 of their colleagues — boldly stepped forward during the final weeks of the Obama administration to try to persuade the White House and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to officially acknowledge that contamination left behind after GE’s cleanup of the upper Hudson continues to threaten the environment and public health, and that additional remediation is needed. Levels of PCBs in fish are 600 percent above those targeted by the EPA; incredibly, women of childbearing age and children are advised by health officials to eat no fish caught along the 200-mile stretch of the river below GE’s now-defunct manufacturing plants. The Hudson remains one of the nation’s largest and most visible Superfund sites — the designation for the country’s most polluted places. As a result, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in with Administrator McCarthy, expressing strong concern that the failed cleanup could undermine the integrity of the entire federal Superfund program and create precedents that GE would cite in other regions where they are resisting comprehensive cleanups of their pollution, such as the Housatonic River in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Despite scientific evidence presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that the river’s recovery will take decades, even generations, longer than called for in the EPA’s cleanup plan, the agency stood by its discredited claim that the cleanup has been a success. As a result, many in Hudson Valley communities, particularly poor and minority populations, will continue to eat and even subsist on contaminated fish for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, Gov. Cuomo and his environmental chief, Basil Seggos, are now leading the charge for a healthy river and upriver economy, vowing to conduct the necessary sampling of the river and dredging of the Champlain Canal to advance both environmental goals and job creation. But this is a big and expensive undertaking, and GE should pay the ultimate tab, not New York taxpayers. We will be reaching out to the Trump administration, including Scott Pruitt, nominee for EPA Administrator, urging the EPA to defer to New York State on what’s needed to complete the Hudson River cleanup.
The second major threat to the Hudson left unresolved by the Obama administration is the Coast Guard’s proposal to allow 43 barges carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials to anchor off valley communities — including the cities of Yonkers and Kingston — for up to 30 days. With no demonstrated need for these offshore parking lots and unsubstantiated claims they would improve safety, the proposal has united Hudson Valley public officials and residents like nothing else in my 30-year career defending the Hudson. Six drinking water intakes are in close proximity to proposed anchorages, with Indian Point nuclear plant a few miles downstream from another. Residents and tourists strolling or boating along revitalized waterfronts to enjoy breathtaking views will instead be confronted by these floating industrial storage facilities — each longer than a football field — as well as belching diesel fumes and glaring nighttime safety lights.
Some 10,000 comments were filed with the Coast Guard (reportedly a precedent) and letters of opposition sent to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from the Cuomo administration, the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and leading business organizations (including the Business Council of Westchester and the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors). The Hudson River Waterfront Alliance, led by Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, has been an articulate and outspoken opponent of the proposal. Rep. Maloney has introduced legislation to ban the new anchorages. Unfortunately, the Obama administration failed to end the rule-making.
In addition to the significant environmental risks these projects pose to the river, the federal Superfund designation (which includes New York Harbor) and the specter of a scenic river full of industrial barges threaten the Hudson Valley’s brand as a great place to live and visit. Gov. Cuomo has made significant progress in redefining New York as a state that is open for business, which President Trump, a master at branding, can further advance.