EPA orders dredging of New York's Hudson River
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the dredging of 40 miles of New York's Hudson River contaminated by potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
About 200 miles of the 315-mile-long Hudson north of Albany have been contaminated by PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenlys. The chemicals were dumped legally into the river from General Electric plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards between 1947 and 1977.
The EPA issued an order Tuesday to the state of New York, which will have three weeks to review it and suggest changes. The order could be completed as soon as January, but it will take at least three years to design the project before any work could begin, according to the EPA.
The dredging of 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment -- enough dirt to fill an area the size of 10 football fields to a height of 145 feet -- is expected to cost G.E. about $460 million. The company has vigorously opposed the plan, insisting that the dredging itself will present an environmental threat by stirring up PCBs in the water.
But in August, EPA Administrator Christine Whitman announced her agency's intention to proceed with dredging.
"We are going ahead with this important cleanup," Whitman said in a statement Tuesday. "We will do so with a continuing open process that will involve all parties."
As part of the order, the EPA outlined standards for air quality and noise during the cleanup, which are required by federal law. But other "performance standards" governing the work, including standards for water quality, will be developed as the project proceeds "in a transparent process with public input and in consultation with the state and federal natural resource trustees," the statement said.
State officials had lobbied against putting more standards in the order, fearing they might prompt court challenges which would cause further delays in the project. Tuesday, Gov. George Pataki said the order was "at first blush very, very positive."
"It looks like this is another decision to go forward and clean up the Hudson," he said.
In 1984, the EPA declared a 200-mile section of the Hudson as a federal Superfund site because of the PCB contamination. The dredging will be performed on 40 miles of "hot spots" in the riverbed between Hudson Falls and Albany.
PCBs are dense, highly toxic chemicals, used as coolants in heavy electrical equipment, that experts say may stay toxic for as long as 250 years. The EPA has labeled PCBs as probably carcinogens, and they have been banned from manufacturing since the 1970s.
Clean it or leave it?
Marine scientists have said the heavy PCB molecules settled in the riverbed, where they can work their way up the food chain and settle in large quantities in fish that people eat. Environmentalists have fought for more than two decades to force G.E. to remove the chemicals from the bottom of the Hudson because of the potential threat.
But the company insists the most environmentally sound course of action is to leave the PCBs where they are. The company, which has conducted a lobbying campaign against dredging in the Hudson River Valley, contends that PCB contamination in the river's fish has declined to acceptable levels -- a claim disputed by the EPA and some independent scientists and environmentalists.
In 1984, the Reagan-era EPA sided with General Electric, saying the environmental and economic costs of dredging would outweigh its benefits. But the agency reversed course in 1990, launching a 10-year study that led to the decision to dredge the river.
Independent assessments from scientists have tended to partially concur with EPA and partially with G.E. While the PCB risk is generally believed to have decreased through the years, most of the assessments have found that they still pose an environmental and health risk along the length of the river from Hudson Falls to New York Harbor.
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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