As Cuomo courts GE, advocates call on company to clean up Hudson

As Cuomo courts GE, advocates call on company to clean up Hudson

October 23, 2015

Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to woo its corporate headquarters back to the Hudson Valley, General Electric might face a less-than-warm welcome from those who want to see the company continue cleaning up the Hudson River.

The environmental advocacy group Hudson Riverkeeper spent decades hounding GE to clean up the roughly 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, the company dumped into the Hudson River from the 1940s until the 1970s. In 2002, a cleanup was mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and came with the requirement that GE remove 55 percent of the remaining PCBs from the riverbed.

In early October, GE announced that it had successfully collected 2.76 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the riverbed, and removed 310,000 pounds of PCBs over the course of its six-year operation. Both GE and the EPA have declared the company’s work done, and called the project a success that exceeded the initial expectations of both the EPA and environmental watchdogs.

“Thirteen years ago, I committed GE to undertaking an environmental dredging project of a size, scope and complexity that had not been attempted before,” said GE CEO Jeff Immelt in a statement on the day the work ended. “We brought world-class GE engineering and technology to the task, and we met every obligation on the Hudson, and will continue to do so. I am proud of the work of our GE team and confident that the dredging project will benefit the Hudson for generations to come.”

The company’s announcement touted the $1 billion it had invested in the project, which took seven years to prepare for, in addition to the six years of actual cleanup.

Similarly, the EPA praised the dredging project’s success, as well as GE’s ability to complete it ahead of schedule.

“The project was completed in less time than expected with less secondary impacts than predicted, such as re-suspending sediments into the water column during dredging,” the agency said in a statement. “This project is the most extensive dredging project undertaken in the nation, and its success is a historic achievement for the recovery of the Hudson River. It was also a success for the local economy – providing about 500 jobs at its peak.”

Cuomo and his administration, meanwhile, have washed their hands of the project altogether, and are attempting to convince GE to bring its corporate headquarters to Westchester from its current home in Fairfield, Connecticut.

But the advocates at Hudson Riverkeeper insist that GE’s work is far from finished. Abigail Jones, a staff attorney for Riverkeeper, said the company should be forced to continue cleaning up PCBs and contaminated sediment for much longer, given the amount of waste remaining in the riverbed.

“Despite what the EPA and GE have been claiming, the river is not clean,” Jones said. “The fish won’t even be something our communities can eat for decades, if not generations.”

Jones acknowledged that GE had exceeded the requirements of its mandated cleanup, but said the 2002 agreement didn’t place adequate expectations on the project to begin with.

“They’ve done a great job of getting what they’re supposed to be getting out of the river, but they need to do more,” she said. “While GE sticks its head in the sand, saying, ‘We’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing,’ they’re ignoring other responsibilities.”

For Jones and the rest of the Riverkeeper team, it’s especially frustrating that Cuomo and his administration have not weighed in on whether the work should continue. Since the end of the dredging project, Cuomo has insisted it is the federal government’s job to determine whether more work needs to be done.

“The state and Gov. Cuomo have a duty to the people of New York to protect this national heritage site,” Jones said. “Their silence is extremely disheartening.”

Spokespeople for Cuomo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Recently, the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees, a group of federal and state agencies tasked with ensuring the health of the river, sent a letter to the EPA calling for the existing dredging infrastructure and machinery to be left in place, so more operations can be undertaken in the future. But the state Department of Environmental Conservation was notably absent from the letter, despite its status as a trustee and its previous participation in numerous other letters sent by the group.

The EPA, meanwhile, is awaiting the results of the trustees’ study of the river before deciding whether to order further cleanup, and in the meantime views GE’s work as done.

Gary Klawinski, the head of the EPA’s Hudson Valley field office, said, “To this point, they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do, what we’ve required them to do. From the EPA’s perspective, they’re in compliance with our agreement.”

Jones, meanwhile, said the state should order its own investigation into the river’s health, and that Cuomo’s administration needs to “step up” and insist on a more extensive cleanup.

“Nobody can, with a straight face, claim ignorance to what the remaining PCBs in the Hudson River mean to our environment, and to our health, and our economy,” Jones said.

A spokesman for GE said only that the company has met the standards set by the EPA, and would happily do more dredging if the federal government mandates it. He also said the company remains undecided about moving its headquarters.

Cuomo has refused to reveal what incentives he’s offering GE in exchange for the potential move, but has described the offer as putting a “lot of love” on the table. He has insisted that the dredging project and the potential headquarters shift are separate issues, and neither has influenced his action on the other.

GE, meanwhile, maintains a significant presence in New York, with thousands of workers at its Schenectady facility, part of its Power & Water branch, and researchers collaborating at several New York universities. Cuomo regularly praises the company as an economic driver for the Capital Region, and rarely fails to tout Immelt’s contributions to New York’s economic development initiatives.

Jones declined to comment on whether Riverkeeper would be happy to see GE bring its corporate headquarters back to New York, but did say the river’s health should be more of a priority for the state than winning back GE’s residency.

“GE is living in an ‘eco-imaginary’ world if it believes its dredging of the Hudson River is anywhere near complete,” Jones said in a statement issued after GE announced its cleanup work was done. “GE should live up to the socially and environmentally responsible image it markets and thoroughly address all of the PCB contamination it created. Until it does, GE can’t claim a job well done, and leave the Hudson River and its communities with this mess.”

Will Brunelle