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New York sues EPA over Hudson River dredging

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    A General Electric dredging barge excavates soil from the banks of the Hudson River, near Troy, where two of its factories once spilled PCBs into the water for decades, May 16, 2015.
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    The state has filed a lawsuit against the EPA over dredging of the Hudson River by General Electric, claiming the job is unfinished.
August 21, 2019 07:30 pm Updated: August 21, 2019 10:06 pm

New York state has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charging a “certificate of completion” was prematurely awarded to General Electric for removal of contaminants from the Hudson River.

The lawsuit was announced jointly by state Attorney General Letitia James and Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday.

On April 11, U.S. EPA Region 2 Administrator Peter Lopez issued a five-year report on the dredging project GE conducted to clean up PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, from the Hudson River. At that time, the second of three mandated certificates of completion were issued to GE by the EPA for the project, Lopez said. The third and final certificate is not expected to be issued for at least 50 years to allow for time to pass as the river’s natural ability to recover takes place.

PCBs are contaminants that were released into the Hudson River by GE between 1947 and 1977. An estimated 1.3 million pounds of the contaminant are thought to have been discharged into the river from two GE manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, about 50 miles north of Albany, according to the Riverkeeper website.

The lawsuit announced Wednesday alleges that the certificate was issued even though levels of PCBs remain “dangerously high” in some sections of the Hudson River.

“Trump’s EPA is failing New Yorkers and the environment by putting the priorities of polluters first,” Cuomo said after announcing the suit. “The Hudson River is among New York’s most precious natural and economic resources, but despite years of dredging, levels of PCB contamination are still unacceptably high in the river and in fish. We have an obligation to protect the health and vitality of both the Hudson River and the communities along its banks for current and future generations.”

Larisa Romanowski, public affairs specialist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the EPA “does not comment on pending legislation.”

Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay said awarding the certificate of completion prematurely could impact the EPA’s ability to mandate further cleanup of the river by GE in the future.

“If left unchallenged, EPA’s decision could needlessly make it much harder for the agency to get GE to finish cleaning up its mess in the Hudson River,” Gallay said.

In addition to claims that the level of PCBs is too high in areas of the river, James claims fish have also absorbed dangerously high concentrations.

“The facts are clear: Hudson River fish remain much too contaminated with PCBs to safely eat, and EPA admits they don’t know when — or if — they ever will be,” James said. “EPA can’t ignore these facts — or the law — and simply pronounce GE’s cleanup of PCBs complete.”

Nearly 200 miles of the Hudson River, from Hudson Falls all the way to New York City, are part of a Hudson River PCB Superfund site. In 2006, the EPA entered into a consent decree with GE, agreeing the company was “responsible for contaminating the Hudson River Superfund Site with polychlorinated biphenyls,” according to court papers.

GE began mandated dredging of portions of the river’s sediment in 2009, dredging approximately 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment, with the EPA overseeing the process. Dredging was completed in 2015.

But after three years, James said the certificate of completion for the dredging is “unlawful” because it inadequately addressed the problem.

The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York to vacate the certificate of completion issued by the EPA in April 2019.

Greg Williams, executive director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, said his organization supports the lawsuit.

“Since GE settled the case in 2005, they have spent less than 1.5% of its profits on cleaning up the mess it made in the Hudson River,” Williams said. “Asking New Yorkers to wait another 50 years to be able to safely eat the fish is neither reasonable nor lawful.”

Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, pointed out that restrictions remain in place on who can eat fish caught in the areas of the river affected by PCB contamination.

“Fish remain so contaminated by GE’s cancer-causing chemical that the New York State Department of Health advises children and women under age 50 to eat no fish along the 200-mile stretch of the river from the foothills of the Adirondacks to New York Harbor,” Sullivan said. “This is unacceptable.”

In the Twin Counties segment of the river, children and women of child-bearing age are warned not to eat any fish caught in the river, and adult males have set limits on how much fish they should consume.

Approximately 54 tons of PCBs remain in the Upper Hudson River, James said.

“Instead of fighting to protect our environment and the health of our communities, EPA is giving GE a free pass after decades of contamination,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, said. “By allowing GE to walk away from the Hudson River cleanup, EPA is abandoning its mission and leaving a job unfinished.”