July/August 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 7& 8
T h e C a s e A g a i n s t G E
Toxics on the Hudson:
By Charlie Cray
The Saga of GE, PCBs and the Hudson River
Back in 1976, Jack Welch negotiated a settlement with the state of New
York, which limited the General Electric (GE) corporations responsibility
for polluting the Hudson River to $3 million. Welchs hard-nosed
negotiating style gained the attention of top executives, launching his
meteoric rise to the top of the company.
GE executives probably hoped the deal would bury the issue forever, and
that everyone concerned about the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) lying
on the bottom of the river would let nature take its course.
But persistent concerns about the PCB contamination have caused the Environmental
Protection Agency to study the issue on a continuous basis since the site
was listed on the nations Superfund priority site list in the early
Finally, on December 6, 2000, after 16 years of studies, proposals and
more studies, EPA announced a 5-year plan to dredge 2.65 million cubic
yards of PCB-contaminated sediment along a 40-mile stretch of the river
below two old GE factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. The proposed
dredging project would remove 100,000 pounds of PCBs from various high-concentration
This river needs to be cleaned up. It will not clean itself,
then-EPA administrator Carol Browner said at the press conference where
the proposal was announced. My strong desire would be that we not
simply study this river to death, but we get on with actually cleaning
The cost of EPAs proposal to GE: $460 million.
The high cost of the cleanup has led company officials to mount one of
the biggest public relations campaigns ever waged around a toxic waste
Theres nothing tentative about GEs attack, says
Andrew Hoffman, an assistant professor of management at the Boston University
School of Management. Theres nothing theyve left untouched
in their full-bore attack that could help them avoid paying the half billion
dollars to clean up the river.
But whats at stake is much more than whether or not GE will be
forced to foot the bill to dredge the Hudson: the case is likely to be
a litmus test of how aggressively the Bush administration manages EPAs
Superfund program which includes 77 other sites where GE
is responsible for the cleanup.
Attention to GEs Hudson PCB mess could also bring out some additional
skeletons in GEs closet. An investigation of factory locations around
the United States where GE once used PCBs to make electrical equipment
turns up a pattern of waste sites which continue to need remediation.
Plus, one-time company policies to give away or sell PCB-contaminated
oil and dirt for fill and other purposes spread the contamination directly
into surrounding communities, creating a number of orphan waste sites,
some of which have only recently been discovered. The full extent of GEs
PCB contamination is most likely still unknown.
The issue here is should the river be cleaned up, and the answer
is yes. We support that, says John Haggard, GEs Hudson River
project manager. In fact, weve been working over the last
two decades actively to do just that. And weve been very successful.
The question is not about doing nothing, its about doing the right
thing. And dredging is not it.
Instead of dredging, GE officials say they have focused their efforts
on measures they claim address the source of the problem: the company
has spent $200 million on a groundwater pump-and-treat system to reduce
the flow of PCBs from the bedrock below its Hudson Falls facility from
5 pounds to 3 ounces a day. As a result of these efforts and the rivers
natural recovery processes, GE officials say PCB levels in fish
have dropped 90 percent since 1977.
GE used to claim that microorganisms were breaking down the PCBs released
into the river, but the company now says they are buried and made inaccessible
by newer sediments.
Burial of the historic PCBs (by upstream sediments) puts them further
and further from reach from the biota, says Edward LaPoint, another
GE project manager. They dont get into the food chain and
up into the fish because theyre buried beneath cleaner, fresher,
But wildlife scientists say the fish are still too contaminated, that
the levels have not declined significantly in recent years, and that it
will probably be decades before they are safe enough to eat, because PCBs
left on the bottom of the river continue to enter the food chain.
The data dont lie, says Marion Trieste, a consultant
for environmental groups monitoring the Hudson. She points out that state
environmental officials have also found high levels of PCBs in floodplain
shoreline soils up to 50 feet outside the normal width of the river. The
PCBs are entering the land-based food chain as a result. Theyve
found incredibly high levels of PCBs in the river otters and mink, which
have not declined in 10 years, says Trieste. Thats an
indication that the problem is spreading beyond the river
it means we have to clean the river to deal with the impacts on shore.
Last year, scientists working for the state Department of Environmental
Conservation also found high levels in turtles taken from the river
as high as 3,091 parts per million (although no federal action level exists
for turtles, the standard for fish is 2 ppm). If we dont do
anything, were looking at another 25 years where they will still
be high, says department wildlife pathologist Ward Stone.
EPA officials say each day the company delays the sediment cleanup only
allows the contamination to spread further downstream. Monitors indicate
that 500 pounds of PCBs fall over the dam at Troy (40 miles downstream
from the two GE factories) each year. With the seepage from the bedrock
below GEs old factories significantly reduced, cleanup advocates
say the PCBs on the river bottom are now the source of the spreading contamination.
One of the things that you hear [from GE] is that the river is
cleaning itself, says Ann Rychlenski, a public affairs specialist
But the same qualities that made PCBs so useful especially
their stability make them a persistent problem in the environment.
A good number of the 78 U.S. Superfund sites where GE is listed as a responsible
party are contaminated with PCBs.
And PCBs are more than just a problem for communities living near toxic
dumpsites. Because they are long-lived, semi-volatile and dont dissolve
in water, PCBs can travel long distances (the 200-mile stretch of the
Hudson River below GEs factories is considered the biggest Superfund
site in the United States).
The potential impact doesnt stop at the tip of Manhattan. Because
of their stability and ability to travel long distances, PCBs can migrate
around the planet. PCBs are part of a global class of chemicals known
to migrate from warmer regions to colder regions. Inuit people living
in the Arctic thousands of miles from any industrial source carry some
of the highest body burdens of PCBs on the planet. Because they are global
pollutants, PCBs are included in a list of POPs (persistent organic pollutants)
targeted for elimination by the United States and over 120 other countries
in a recent treaty. [See Taking on Toxics I: Stopping POPs,
Multinational Monitor, January/February 2001] Thus PCBs from the Hudson
can potentially have a global impact.
PCBs are also fat-soluble, which means that they concentrate as they
move up the food chain. Animals at the top of the food chain
especially mammals like polar bears and dolphins have dangerously
high levels of the chemicals, which they lack the ability to detoxify.
As early as the 1930s, GE executives knew about problems in workers exposed
to PCBs. GE executives met with colleagues from Monsanto and other companies
to share information on the systemic effects of PCBs and other
chlorinated hydrocarbons, including chloracne, a disfiguring skin condition.
In 1937, GEs F.R. Kaimer published an article in the Journal of
Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology about 50 workers who were in very
bad condition as far as the acne was concerned.
While scientists have warned about PCBs carcinogenicity since at
least the 1970s, recent attention to PCBs interference with endocrine
systems during fetal development and other critical stages of growth have
increased concern and caused many to criticize federal cleanup standards
as too weak. Studies conducted in both the United States and the Netherlands
have concluded that children exposed in the womb to high-end background
levels of PCBs experience signs of diminished intelligence and greater
susceptibility to infectious diseases than children with lower levels
Between the 1940s and 1976, when the U.S. Congress outlawed PCB manufacture,
sale and distribution (except in totally enclosed systems),
GE discharged about 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River.
The contamination ruined a once-thriving commercial fishing industry and
devastated recreational fishing, which was only opened on a catch
and release basis in the 40-mile long upper Hudson in 1996, after
being closed for two decades.
This isnt the first time EPA has proposed to dredge the river.
In the early 1980s, EPA was ready to proceed when a highly politicized
Reagan Administration stalled the process. Ultimately, EPA selected a
no action alternative.
As required by law, EPA and other agencies started to re-examine the
issue during the first Bush Administration. After many years of study
looking at the movement of PCB hotspots, levels in fish,
human health risks and (through the National Academy of Sciences) various
dredging technologies the EPA finally issued its proposal
The most visible part of the campaign have been the millions of dollars
GE has spent on television commercials (at least 16 separate ads have
been produced for the company), a half-hour infomercial (for upstate networks),
radio ads, full-page newspaper ads, billboards, bus signs, newsletters
and web sites. The heaviest advertising blitz came just before the April
17 deadline for public comments expired.
GE has refused to disclose exactly how much it has paid to wage its anti-dredging
campaign, but observers estimate that the company has spent as much as
$60 million to defeat EPAs $460 million proposal. After a shareholder
resolution calling on the company to disclose how much it had spent came
up for a vote at the companys annual meeting in April, Jack Welch
claimed that the company has spent between $10 million and $15 million.
Dredge supporters like the Poughkeepsie-based environmental group Scenic
Hudson have nowhere near the financial clout to counter GEs assault
over the airwaves. Nor can EPA spend taxpayers money on infomercials.
The reason GE is buying television time is crystal clear: they
want to muddy the water about the cleanup and are willing to invest a
few million dollars today in order to stop the EPA from forcing them to
pay hundreds of millions tomorrow, says Jay Burgess of Scenic Hudson.
If you live along the river, its going to be like having
an offshore drilling rig in your backyard 24 hours a day, says Steve
Ramsey, GEs vice president for corporate environmental programs,
in the half-hour infomercial the company ran on upstate networks during
the public comment period.
Thats just ridiculous, retorts Ann Rychlenski, EPAs
project spokesperson. This is limited, targeted dredging. Out of
all the 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River bottom that is contaminated,
we are talking about dredging 13 percent, not ripping up the river bottom
in its entirety, as GE would have people believe.
EPA has willfully ignored its own finding in 1984 that a massive
dredging program like the one proposed today would be devastating to the
river ecosystem, Ramsey says.
The infomercial shows navigational clamshell dredges spilling out contaminated
slurry, and trucks hauling sludge to toxic waste dumps (the implication
being that EPA is also secretly planning to build a sludge dump nearby,
which the agency denies).
EPA officials say the new proposal is different than the 1984 proposal.
Impartial experts empanelled by the National Academy of Sciences report
that dredging methods have improved considerably in the past 15 years,
with the addition of real-time water quality monitoring, global positioning
systems that help locate exact target coordinates, and the use of vacuum-like
hydraulic dredges which contain the sediments in a suction tube as they
are hauled up. Other engineering controls like sheet piling and silk curtains
are routinely used to contain any spillage.
In the 1984 decision, what we rejected was bank-to-bank dredging
over the 40-mile stretch. Thats not what were proposing here,
which is targeted dredging, says EPAs Rychlenski.
Its interesting to me that the same company that has been
touting the fact that the Hudson is coming back says nature cant
replenish itself if youre taking on any kind of remedy. The fact
is that this has been done elsewhere, and the biota comes back quickly.
Other government agencies responsible for monitoring the Hudson, including
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, also support EPAs dredging proposal.
THE BEST SCIENCE MONEY CAN BUY
Key to GEs claims is a company-sponsored study which concludes
(like two previous studies sponsored by the company) that workers at its
Fort Edward and Hudson Falls plants have not suffered from excess rates
The epidemiological study has been roundly criticized by occupational
health professionals and officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry (ATSDR). They say the study suffers from exposure
misclassification (by including individuals who worked at the plants but
had little to no exposure to PCBs), failure to account for the latency
period between exposure and appearance of cancer, and other biases. PCB
levels were actually measured in only 200 of the over 7,000 people in
the study. Nevertheless, the study did find excesses in three of
the six cancers of interest, the ATSDR officials noted in a published
letter criticizing the study.
Its noteworthy that the GE-funded study is the only one of
the major occupational PCB exposure studies that did not find some statistically
significant elevation of incidence of cancer, says Dr. David Carpenter
of the Albany School of Public Health. Every international group
of experts that has been asked to look at the issue has concluded that
they are proven to cause cancer in animals and are probable carcinogens
in humans. Carpenter adds that there can be no absolute proof that
PCBs (or any other chemical for that matter) cause cancer in humans because
theres no way to control for other exposures.
Theres just no doubt that PCBs are carcinogenic in the mind
of any independent scientist, Carpenter says. Its only
people with close ties to industries that have conflicts of interest that
would make such preposterous claims. Its very akin to the smoking,
cancer and tobacco industry story. To have a corporation like General
Electric deny that animal research, including research done by their own
laboratories proving PCBs cause cancer in rats, is relevant to whether
PCBs cause cancer in humans is ludicrous. Our whole system of study of
disease is based on animal research.
Although the companys position that PCBs dont cause cancer
has little credibility within the scientific community, observers say
its the court of public opinion that really matters. And by repeating
its position often in ads and public meetings
GE has been able to sow the seeds of doubt.
They want to cause public confusion, and make the argument appear
to seem scientifically complicated, because they know that oftentimes
the public will tune out as soon as it gets complicated, says Judith
Enck, a policy advisor to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Although New York City remains supportive of the project, 60 upstate
local municipalities have passed resolutions opposing EPAs plan
because of its immediate impact on businesses and recreational uses of
the waterway (at least 50 have passed resolutions supporting it).
But cleanup supporters say town leaders in some communities like Schuylerville,
which has taken a tough anti-dredging position, may have been influenced
by handouts from GE. Schuylerville received $30,000 from GE to fix a bathhouse
just three months after tests confirmed the presence of PCBs in a riverside
I guarantee you we wouldnt have gotten that money if we had
not said we were against dredging, says Wendy Lukas, a village trustee.
INSIDE THE BELTWAY
As governor of New Jersey, now-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman
supported the dredging, because the contamination reached New York Harbor
where sediment is dredged to keep the Harbor open for deep shipping channels.
That was her position then, so the question is, will she be consistent,
says Judith Enck.
Whitman is not likely to feel much pressure from New York Governor George
Pataki, who supports dredging but has done little to back it up. Garey
Sheffer, an environmental policy advisor to the Pataki administration,
accepted a job with GE last year. Sheffer was recruited by GE without
applying for the position.
Some observers say EPA may defer a final decision to the regional branch
in Manhattan, thus insulating Whitman and the new administration from
having to deal with the consequences.
Others say the agency is likely to propose a pilot project to demonstrate
to local opponents how little impact dredging will have, a decision that
would effectively delay a full-scale cleanup for years.
Should Whitman or the regional office choose to follow through, however,
GE will probably try to head them off at the pass, in Congress.
Its hard to imagine who will stop GE in Congress. The company has
been holstering some big guns inside the beltway to ensure that its interests
will be well represented: 17 lobbyists have been retained to work in Washington
on the contaminated sediments/natural resources damage issue,
including six ex-Members of Congress.
The team is led by Bob Livingston (the former Louisiana congressperson
and House Appropriations Committee chair), former New York congressperson
Gerald Solomon, a long-time GE booster whose old district includes the
capacitor factories, and ex-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of
Maine, who now heads the National Sediments Coalition.
GEs lobbyists have tried to keep EPA from dredging the Hudson by
attaching riders (unrelated provisions) to recent EPA appropriations bills.
The rider offered in 2000 would have blocked dredging of contaminated
sites across the nation, but was finally dropped under pressure from the
Clinton White House. Previously, the riders ordered the EPA to wait for
a National Academy of Sciences study on PCB-contaminated sediments before
taking any action.
In January, dredging opponent Representative John Sweeney, R-New York,
gained a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, the same place where
he and Solomon tacked on provisions to tie up dredging in the past.
If anti-dredging legislation does pass Congress, few expect President
Bush to exercise his veto power the way Clinton did to oppose anti-environmental
measures. Sweeneys former chief of staff, Brad Card, is the brother
of Andrew Card, President Bushs chief of staff.
Both groups have focused on the potential impacts of dredging, including
the environmental scars left from excavating backfill and contamination
from the treatment of the contaminated sediments.
CEASE president Tim Havens doesnt deny that his group has received
support from GE. The pro-dredgers cant think of anything else
to say, so thats what they say, he comments. GE has supplied
CEASE with rally signs, bumper stickers and supporting studies. Theyve
given us any information that they think would be helpful. Theyve
cooperated with us because were a modest group in terms of finances.
We dont work for them; were a non-profit volunteer organization
protecting our community. We just happen to be on the same side of the
FAIRs attorneys say they have also received technical support from
GE in filing objections to EPAs proposal since the EPA technical
assistant grants (allocated as part of the Superfund program to local
groups) were given to groups that support the proposal.
Not surprisingly, both groups tend to downplay GEs culpability.
One of the big reasons GE doesnt want dredging is that they
dont want the contingent liability of having to be responsible for
other contaminants in the river that other companies put in there,
Havens says. This project was put forth for strictly political reasons.
They dont give a damn about the Hudson. The only reason they want
this river dredged is there is a lot of money to be made by some private
dredging contractor somewhere. Under Superfund law, it doesnt have
to be put out to bid. The whole thing is flawed, crooked from day one.
But not everyone in upstate New York opposes the dredging. In fact, support
is strong even in the GE-lobbied riverside communities, where a divided
audience attended public hearings held in December.
A public opinion survey conducted last fall by the Marist Institute for
Public Opinion for Scenic Hudson, a regional environmental group that
has advocated for the PCB cleanup for two decades, found that 91 percent
of those surveyed who had not seen General Electrics ads supported
the river cleanup, while 73 percent of those who had seen the ads supported
dredging. Residents of Albany and northern areas more divided
over the issue still leaned towards cleaning up the river,
although GEs advertising blitz had clearly eroded support.
YOU OWE IT TO GOD
The stuff is all over the place, says Walter Hang, an investigator
with Toxic Targeting, Inc. who has mapped 40 PCB-contaminated sites in
the upper Hudson River basin alone. Thirteen of the 40 sites have been
designated as a significant threat to the public health or environment
by New Yorks Department of Environmental Conservation because PCBs
are still leaching into the river or other parts of the environment.
And the problem doesnt stop with sites officially recognized by
state and federal officials. GE sold or gave away thousands of cubic yards
of PCB-contaminated soil for use as clean fill around peoples
homes, driveways, along roadbanks and to sand roads in the wintertime.
One of the 40 dumps is the Dewey Loeffel Landfill in Nassau. According
to the New York Attorney Generals office, GE and other companies
dumped more than 46,000 tons of PCBs, heavy metals and other toxic wastes
at the site during the 1950s and 1960s more than twice the
amount dumped at Love Canal.
The landfill was closed in 1970. GE reached a settlement with the state
and, in 1984, the company capped the site with clay. Nevertheless, toxic
chemicals continue to seep into groundwater because of a 70-foot crack
in the bedrock under the site, while runoff from PCB-contaminated soil
flows out into nearby Nassau Lake.
In 1999, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
changed the status of the Dewey Loeffel site from Class 4 (remediated)
to Class 2 (posing a significant health risk).
Residents say GE is currently remediating contaminated soil in a pond
immediately outside the landfill, where the contamination is highest,
but is not being forced to clean up lower-level contamination in Nassau
Lake or to prevent the PCBs that have already been released from spreading
all the way down to the Hudson River, 10 miles away.
Our lake will be clean in about 3,000 years,
says Kelly Travers-Main, a local citizen activist, who adds that although
there are fish advisories on the books, there are no signs posted at Nassau
The old GE transformer plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is one such
toxic hub. Unlike Hudson River communities, public opinion in Pittsfield
turned towards dredging in the early 1990s, when GE cut production at
the plant and idled thousands of workers. Many ex-workers joined the fight
to get the company to clean up its mess before it closed the plant altogether.
By 1999, GE signed a 404-page agreement with EPA which committed the
company to spend between $200 million and $750 million to clean up the
site for redevelopment, and to remove toxic sediment from a two-mile stretch
of the Housatonic River immediately downstream of the site.
Critics say that although the plan calls for monitoring and cleanup further
downstream, that portion of the plan is likely to be delayed for years.
Since 1982, there has been a fish consumption ban in effect for 85 miles
of the river from Pittsfield all the way south through Connecticut to
the Long Island Sound.
Nor are nearby property owners as satisfied with the agreement as the
EPA, since it leaves only $1 million to clean up residential properties.
Local residents say PCB-contaminated soils were dumped all over town since
GE donated PCB-contaminated soil to Pittsfield homeowners
and schools to use as fill for their yards and playgrounds.
EPA officials say that, after 20 years of negotiating with GE, the agreement
is a good compromise (as in New York, GE used a variety of hardball tactics,
including veiled threats to close the remaining plant in Pittsfield, full-page
ads questioning the health risks of PCBs and threats to tie EPA up in
court, as well as efforts to obtain state-level legislative relief
from its cleanup liabilities).
EPA also says the cleanup plan includes a reopener clause
that keeps GE responsible for contamination discovered in the future.
But local critics say that clause is not likely to be exercised, since
it may threaten the companys willingness to proceed with the cleanup.
WHEN IN ROME
Although Steve Ramsey, GEs vice president for environmental programs,
told local reporters that its safe to say that we know pretty
much everything there is to know about conditions at the plant site,
no one knows how extensive the contamination is off site, since the PCBs
from the sewer lines ended up mixing with sludge at the Rome waste water
treatment plant. Farmers and gardeners were given the sludge as fertilizer
during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
GE also sold PCB waste oils to an undetermined number of employees for
use as a dust suppressant, wood preservative and termite deterrent from
1953 to at least 1969.
In April, PCBs were found at 24,000 parts per million in soil at the home of a former GE employee. (2 ppm in surface soils is the level EPA used as a goal for cleaning up Anniston, Alabama residential areas near Monsantos PCB manufacturing plant). A concentration of 3,000 ppm was found in the crawl space of a second home, and PCBs at 100 ppm were found in a garden at a third.