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Scenic Hudson report: billions needed for Hudson River restoration

Hudson River
Elizabeth Hill

An environmental advocacy group has put a price tag on cleanup and economic impacts on the Hudson River following decades of pollution by General Electric.

GE wrapped upped its dredging work the upper Hudson between Fort Edward and Troy in 2015, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a Certification of Completion of the Remedial Action four years later.

But environmental group Scenic Hudson has released a new report that includes a price tag for addressing damages in the upper and lower Hudson associated with GE’s past release of PCB’s into the river.

Scenic Hudson President Ned Sullivan explained while GE’s cleanup along a 40-mile stretch was completed under the parameters of the federal Superfund law, there are also provisions in the law to merit additional action.

“Another section of the law requires GE to pay for injuries it has caused to the natural resources of the Hudson over the past 70 years in what are anticipated to be ongoing injuries for decades into the future. In addition, federal law allows for Trustees of the river to require General Electric to conduct a restoration dredge to curtail the continued injury of the river by the PCBs,” said Sullivan.

Scenic Hudson’s report is not an official Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a formal report that can only be conducted by designated Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees.

The Trustee agencies include the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

The Trustees are conducting their own assessment of damages associated with the PCB contamination of the Hudson.

Scenic Hudson says its study, based on publicly-available information, used established NRDA procedures.

Hayley Carlock is Scenic Hudson’s Director of Environmental Advocacy and Legal Affairs.

“We hired a team of experts to look at how we could frame and scope a potential natural resource damage assessment to ensure that the Hudson fully recovers and is restored to the condition that it would have been in if GE had never discharged its PCBs,” said Carlock.

Scenic Hudson says its study reviewed data on wetland-dependent wildlife in the upper and lower Hudson, drinking water impacts, navigational impacts including the Champlain Canal – which has been closed to deep-draft shipping due to PCB contamination — as well as the loss of value in recreational fishing.

“And our experts estimated that the total compensatory damages for all these areas could be as much as $11.4 billion.”

Carlock said the main reason that number is so high is because General Electric dismantled its cleanup infrastructure used in the upper Hudson dredging operation in 2016.

”That was a huge sunk capital cost. If we still had that equipment, the cost would probably be a fraction of that,” said Carlock.

Although public health guidance has been issued limiting the number of Hudson River fish that can be safely consumed, Carlock pointed out that many families – particularly those in marginalized communities — rely on subsistence fishing.

A 2016 survey by Scenic Hudson and the Sierra Club found that a third of anglers who consumed fish taken from the river reported eating more than the strict Health Department recommendation.

A GE spokesman provided a statement to WAMC responding to Scenic Hudson’s report.

Spokesman Mark Behan said:

“GE’s dredging of the Upper Hudson River has been hailed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a ‘historic achievement,’ and EPA, supported by the federal courts, has concluded no additional dredging is needed. This report by a private advocacy group is inconsistent with the wealth of scientific literature showing that Hudson River wildlife populations are healthy and thriving. The government’s natural resource assessment has not yet been completed. We are proud of our contributions and will continue to work closely with local, state and federal agencies.”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.