During his five years in office, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spearheaded remarkable environmental achievements.
He set one of the nation's most ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions and shifting to clean energy--mandating that 50 percent of New York's electricity come from renewable resources by 2030. Citing major threats to the environment and public health, he showed national caliber leadership in banning hydraulic fracturing in the state. And just recently, his Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) denied a water quality permit necessary for construction of a natural gas pipeline whose 124-mile route would cross 250 streams and sensitive ecological areas around them. In addition, Gov. Cuomo's budget for 2016-17 contains the highest level of environmental funding--$300 million--in state history.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also doesn't shy away from tackling environmental challenges. He leads the coalition of 25 states, cities and counties that have filed a legal brief in defense of President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would require fossil-fueled power plants--the largest single source of greenhouse gas--to comply with the Clean Air Act by cutting carbon emissions. Building on the unprecedented settlement his office reached in 2014 with Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal company, over misleading statements the company made to investors and the public regarding climate change, it now is conducting a similar investigation into the practices of Exxon.
New Yorkers should be proud of these leaders' accomplishments, which make our state a better place to live, work and play. But where are they when it comes to ensuring a comprehensive cleanup of one of New York's most important natural resources--the Hudson River, where pollution from General Electric's toxic PCBs poses serious threats to people and wildlife?
Sadly, both are missing in action.
For a powerful look at the serious harm PCBs are causing the Hudson and residents in its riverfront communities, I urge you to watch this short documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Jon Bowermaster. In previous blogs I've detailed how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems poised to let GE off the hook despite solid, peer-reviewed scientific evidence from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that dredging the company has completed to date fails to achieve the environmental and public health goals the EPA targeted for this cleanup. EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, who is overseeing the project, declared it a success and allowed GE to dismantle its cleanup operation even before the agency commenced a mandated review of its effectiveness.
In effect, the EPA appears eager to wash its hands of America's largest Superfund site instead of compelling GE to undertake the additional cleanup that will make the river heal faster. Although the EPA has the legal right to seek additional cleanup under its Superfund agreement with the company, it wants to pass the buck, literally and figuratively, to New York, forcing it to pay for the removal of contamination that jeopardizes the health of its residents and halts economic opportunity in dozens of its communities.
A review of the cleanup's goals currently being planned by the EPA offers the best chance to secure additional dredging by GE under the agency's authority. It's unlikely to be an evenhanded, scientifically grounded analysis unless Gov. Cuomo and Mr. Schneiderman take an active role.
Fortunately, the DEC has taken a positive step. It has joined NOAA and the USFWS--the federal agencies with which it is jointly tasked with overseeing the river's restoration following the cleanup--in advising the EPA it wishes to participate in the upcoming review. The agency should take an additional step and publicly support the federal trustees' alarming analysis that refutes the EPA's premature claims of a successful cleanup.
The governor can once again demonstrate his environmental leadership by publicly demanding that the EPA do the job it set out to achieve. Time and again, he has proven adept at brokering last-minute accords that avert disaster, whether potentially crippling strikes or cancellation of much-needed infrastructure projects. He must step in now and exert his authority to ensure the Hudson does not continue to be the largest Superfund site in the country, a threat to human health and a drag on the upstate economy for the indefinite future.
Simultaneously, he could accelerate the state's preparation to sue GE to remove PCB contamination from the Champlain Canal, which links the upper Hudson River to Lake Champlain. The state's Canal Corporation doesn't have the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to dredge toxic sediments from the waterway. Until the contamination is removed, the channel on this once profitable link between New York City and the Great Lakes will remain too shallow for nearly all commercial shipping.
In addition to supporting the governor's actions, Attorney General Schneiderman should take action against GE for misleading the public and its stockholders for decades about the toxicity of PCBs. An investigative report in the Albany Times Union revealed that GE was aware PCBs cause significant health problems to people and wildlife as early as the 1960s. Yet the company kept this information secret--and according to the Times Union lied to government officials about levels of these chemicals it was releasing into the river. Until 1977, after GE stopped using PCBs, the company line was that it simply didn't know about the harm they caused. As he's doing with Exxon, Mr. Schneiderman should hold GE accountable for its deceit.
Gov. Cuomo and Mr. Schneiderman should stand up for the Hudson and tell the EPA and GE to stop patting themselves on the back for a half-done cleanup. As the ultimate authorities for protecting and defending New York's natural resources and the well-being of its residents, they must exert their authority and secure the cleanup the Hudson River deserves. In the process, both men will further cement their legacies as champions of New York's environment and public health and defenders of the taxpayers who will otherwise foot the bill for the additional cleanup needed.