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NY Sues EPA Over Hudson River Cleanup Decision

Hudson River
Elizabeth Hill
Hudson River

New York state is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over General Electric’s PCB cleanup in the Hudson River. The state threatened the action earlier this year and made it official Wednesday.

In April, EPA issued a Certification of Completion of Remedial Action to General Electric for its cleanup of PCBs along a 40-mile stretch of the upper Hudson River. At that time, state officials said they would sue over the EPA’s decision that deems GE’s cleanup job complete and relieves GE from liability for cleanup. And on Wednesday, they did. State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos:

“Well, listen, we’re taking the time to file a lawsuit so that we can prevail in court and ultimately have a judge tell EPA to get back to work. And there’s so much work that needs to be done on the Hudson River,” Seggos says. “The fact that EPA effectively walked away from its obligations and said, well, maybe in five or six or seven decades, the cleanup will have been successful; and that is just unacceptable for every single river community, every person that cares about the Hudson, everyone that wants to fish in the river, but can’t. More work needs to be done.”

A spokeswoman says the EPA does not comment on pending litigation. In June, EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez told WAMC the federal agency will continue to monitor the PCB levels in the river and that the EPA’s position was appropriate.

"That certification is not to be confused with certification of completion of the work, which we may not see in our lifetimes," Lopez said. "It may be the remedy scenario horizon is 50 years. So unless and until we reach that point, GE is not off the hook."

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James, in announcing the lawsuit, said that when EPA issued the Certificate of Completion, the agency’s Five-Year Review found that the cleanup was not adequately protective of human health and the environment. The EPA concluded that it did not have sufficient information to even determine if or when the cleanup would meet this standard. Again, Seggos:

“That’s exactly what we’re suing upon today, that EPA exceeded its authority to give GE effectively a pass for its work,” Seggos says.

The state’s lawsuit charges that the EPA's issuance of the Certificate of Completion to GE is beyond the agency's legal authority and should be vacated. A number of environmental groups applauded Cuomo and James for filing the suit, including Poughkeepsie-based Scenic Hudson, where Ned Sullivan is president.

“This is a river that has been compromised for five decades. EPA itself admits it’s going to be at least five decades more,” says Sullivan. “So it’s absolutely crucial that New York state take this action today so that they can bring all pressure to bear to force GE to conduct the additional cleanup that’s needed.”

GE spokesman Mark Behan, in a statement, says, “EPA conducted a comprehensive review of the Hudson River dredging project and concluded that dredging successfully reduced PCB levels, no additional dredging is warranted, and GE met all of its obligations. New York state’s data showed that 99% of locations sampled in the Upper Hudson met the cleanup standard that EPA and New York set. Environmental conditions in the Hudson will continue to improve and GE will continue to cooperate with both EPA and New York State.” Seggos says PCB-laden fish are in indication that the cleanup is not complete or successful.

“Look, the fish have not recovered to the extent to which the Record of Decision required,” says Seggos. “We’d expected a faster recovery in fish. That’s what GE had told us would happen.”

Scenic Hudson’s Sullivan:

“New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency [Service] and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  are also gathering data and preparing to take action under the Natural Resource Damage provisions of the federal Superfund law,” Sullivan says.

Seggos further explains.

“The Natural Resource Damage Assessment is something that DEC and our federal trustee partners have been doing for about 10 years, studying the overall impact of the PCBs in the river from an ecological perspective and determining how the PCBs have impacted the ecology and economy of the river,” says Seggos. “That process is under way still. We intend to obviously complete the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, then go to the company and seek those damages.”

He says there are several more months of work left to do on this. General Electric removed 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment through 2015.

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