An Inclusive Litany

12/21/01

The Environmental Protection Agency approved a proposal that would compel General Electric to pay $460 million to fund a project to dredge a 40-mile stretch of New York's Hudson River above Albany for PCBs, which were long used in the manufacture of electrical equipment.

GE produced an estimated 1.1 million pounds of the chemical over three decades, allowing PCB-contaminated waste to drain into the river until 1977, when the chemical was declared a "probable human carcinogen" and banned. After that, GE spent nearly $200 million on remediation efforts that reduced the river's PCB levels by 90 percent. The remaining ten percent of tainted sediment is now buried under layers of mud. Dredging the river will take an estimated five years, and another twenty years for the mud to settle again. The EPA's PCB reduction goals will likely not be met until the year 2031, at which point pregnant women would theoretically be able to eat fish caught in the river more than once a month.

Local residents overwhelmingly oppose the dredging project. Locals currently swim freely and safely in the river, and two towns even tap the river for drinking water. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Geological Survey have pointed out the danger of disturbing the tainted sediments, which would bring them up to the top layer of the river floor. The project also requires constructing two 30-acre hazardous waste plants on the river banks, and ten miles of underwater pipeline, and a set of landfill sites in which to dump an estimated 45,000 tons of waste a day.

And while PCBs supposedly cause cancer, there is much evidence that even this basic assumption is unfounded. Studies of workers exposed to high levels of PCBs and of people who regularly eat PCB-contaminated fish show no increased risk of developing cancer. One study showed GE workers with higher levels of PCBs in their blood to have lower rates of cancer incidence. Dr. Susan Sieber of the National Cancer Institute has stated that her agency knew of "no evidence" that eating fish from the Hudson River poses a cancer risk.

[Ed.: Interestingly, environmental advocates have opposed a similar river-dredging project that would allow commercial navigation along the Delaware.]

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