SARATOGA — After threatened lawsuits and dueling news releases between the state DEC and the federal EPA over the dredging of the Hudson River, both sides struck a far more congenial tone Thursday.
At a Community Action Group meeting at Saratoga Town Hall, the two agencies said they’re now working together. They need to decide whether more should be done to remove PCBs from the Hudson River.
They’re also “expecting” to order polluters to help remove PCBs from the lower river, said Pete Lopez, new regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It may be General Electric, it may be others,” he said.
General Electric dumped 1.3 million tons of PCBs into the river from the Fort Edward area, until the 1970s. It was ordered to pay for the cleanup, which included a six-year dredging project to lift tons of PCB-contaminated sediment out of the river. It finished that project in 2016 and dismantled its dredging facility in Fort Edward, but hasn’t been officially granted a certification of completion from EPA yet.
Many groups want more dredging because there is still so much contamination in the river. The current estimates suggest it will take the river 80 years to heal.
As dredging came to an end, DEC officials issued increasingly angry news releases, criticizing EPA for seeming to indicate it would say the PCB dredging was complete.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo even threatened to sue the EPA recently.
But the new EPA regional administrator appears to have changed the dynamic.
Lopez, who came to the CAG meeting for the first time Thursday, said he’s personal friends with Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and other senior DEC officials.
He asked Seggos to share DEC’s data with EPA to help guide the decision on the river.
Last week, EPA project manager Gary Klawinski met with DEC to look at the data sets.
The meeting apparently went well.
“I anticipate a CAG meeting where (DEC project manager) Kevin (Farrar) and I get up here and explain everything,” he said, referring to the data each agency has collected.
He stressed that General Electric’s dredging has not yet been certified “complete.”
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“No decisions have been made yet,” he said.
He also said EPA has two certifications: one on the “remedial action” completion — the dredging, in other words — and one on completing “the work,” which he defined as happening when the PCBs no longer make fish unsafe to eat.
Lopez made it clear Thursday that he is working closely with DEC on the issue. He told EPA to be “respectful” of the 1,800 samples that “our partner” offered.
While they study that data, they have “paused” discussion on the GE certificate of completion, he said.
The agency is weighing not only whether GE completed what was asked of it, but also whether more should be done, Lopez added.
“We are signaling we don’t know everything,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a shift.”
But Klawinski said communication has improved. Now, Lopez and Seggos are talking; their deputies are talking; and he’s talking with Farrar as he always did.
“Pete, since he’s joined, has made a point that we’re going to engage them even more,” Klawinski said of DEC. “It’s an extra effort to do better.”
Deputy DEC Remediation Commissioner Martin Brand is also pleased.
“We’re very encouraged. We’re very much appreciative of this pause,” he said. “It’s premature right now to say the (PCB removal) remedy is complete. We need to make informed policy decisions on whether more work is needed.”
CAG members were also pleased that DEC and EPA appear to be working together better.
“It’s important for everybody to be on the same page,” said CAG member Rich Elder. “The two parties really need to sit down and make an agreement on what the next steps are.”
It might not come down to just what will improve the river, Lopez warned. His agency must also weigh the cost versus projected improvement.
“How quickly can we have (the river) heal and at what cost? That’s what we’re struggling with,” he said.