Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that the state plans to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for issuing a certificate of completion to the General Electric Co. for its Hudson River cleanup.
Others are calling on the EPA to reverse its decision.
The governor’s news release came just a couple of hours after a teleconference Thursday morning where the EPA said it was issuing the certificate of completion, but had not yet made a determination on whether the dredging worked.
The governor and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos have said they would pursue litigation if a certificate of completion was issued.
“Time and again the Trump Administration puts corporations and polluters’ interests ahead of public health and the environment,” Cuomo said in a news release shortly after the teleconference. “The Hudson River is the lifeblood of communities from New York City to the Adirondacks but we know PCB levels remain unacceptably high in the riverbed and in fish. Since the EPA has failed to hold GE accountable for fulfilling its obligation to restore the river, New York State will take any action necessary to protect our waterways and that includes suing the EPA to demand a full and complete remediation. Anything less is unacceptable.”
The state has performed many of its own analyses of sediment and fish, and issued a flurry of calls since 2016 for more cleanup of the Hudson River.
EPA Region 2 Administrator Pete Lopez said during the teleconference that he respects the governor. He added that the EPA and state have “some level of disagreement on the understanding of the consent decree and the law surrounding our decisions.”
The EPA has said the certificate of completion does not mean GE is “off the hook,” but rather is a receipt to show that the company completed the work ordered in the 2006 consent decree. Separately, the EPA issued its five-year review, in which it did not make a determination about whether GE’s remedial activities worked.
Fish tissue data will continue to be collected, and the EPA plans to make a determination in around eight years.
Lopez had said if the state sues, GE could also sue because it had fulfilled its requirements.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had mixed messages Thursday about the cleanup of the Hudson River Superfund site.
“We respect their (the state’s) ability to question, and that’s OK, and just to be honest, and the world I come from as a former state legislator, I can be sued on either side,” Lopez said. “We are legally bound to issue a certification. It’s OK if it’s tested in the courts.”
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Lopez added that the consent decree includes “re-opener provisions,” so it could still require GE to complete more cleanup work. It also has not issued GE the final “certification of completion of work,” which likely won’t be issued for at least five decades.
State and local officials do not agree with the EPA’s decision, and think it could be much harder to require GE to dredge more now that the certificate of completion was issued.
DEC has said its fish tissue samples show that PCB concentrations are not decreasing at the rate expected.
Gary Klawinski, director of the EPA’s Hudson River Field Office, said on the conference call that the fish tissue targets “are a guidepost,” and not necessarily a hard line.
“EPA is failing in its mission to protect our environment,” Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a news release. “EPA is obligated to direct GE to meet the cleanup goals set when the dredging remedy was selected. The federal government’s failure to protect New York’s environment and New Yorkers is unacceptable, and we are doing what we must to compel EPA and GE to finish the job and protect public health, the precious and irreplaceable Hudson River environment, and the communities that depend on a clean and healthy river.”
Besides threatening litigation, the state wants the EPA to make GE collect more data to see if more dredging is needed. It also wants a full investigation of the lower Hudson River.
“Despite the EPA’s stance, the facts remain crystal clear: the cleanup of PCBs is incomplete, and allowing GE to walk away without accountability is dangerous to the health and welfare of New Yorkers,” James said.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said she was disappointed the EPA issued the certification “which carried with it the covenant not to sue.” She’s glad the state is looking to sue EPA.
Erin Doran, senior attorney for Riverkeeper, said her organization “wholeheartedly supports the state’s commitment to sue the EPA.” She, too, felt that by issuing the certificate of completion, it would be more difficult “to get GE back in the river.”
“EPA’s decision to issue GE a Certificate of Completion for their underachieving Upper Hudson PCB cleanup constitutes a failure of will and an abdication of responsibility,” added Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay, in a news release.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called EPA’s announcement a “failure of leadership” and said the Hudson River cleanup is not done. She wants the EPA to reverse its decision.
“The EPA is even admitting that it will likely take eight more years to collect enough data to know if the remedy is actually working and more than five decades before the river is actually safe,” Gillibrand added, in a statement. “All of this is unacceptable, and in light of those facts, the EPA’s action today is disgraceful.”