If the Environmental Protection Agency finds that the multiyear, multimillion-dollar dredging of the Hudson River didn’t work, then more dredging isn’t the answer.
The best way to clean the river would have been for General Electric not to dump in it more than a million pounds of an oily chemical pollutant in the first place. Once the PCBs were in there, it was always doubtful they could be gotten out.
We in no way want GE let off the hook. Federal Hudson River trustees are reviewing damage done by the PCBs and by the dredging itself to natural habitats and can still determine the company needs to do more in the way of habitat restoration.
We don’t think GE’s responsibility to help local communities recover is done, even if dredging is. Enormous damage was done to the local communities by the pollution that came from its plant, and repayment could take a more direct form, such as funding for civic improvements, like parks, or even payments to reduce local taxes.
It’s fair for GE to be held responsible for more remediation, even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on dredging. If you don’t want to spend huge sums on cleanups and compensation, don’t dump huge amounts of gunk into the river.
But cleanups should be more than make-work for crews driving barges and running clamshell dredges. They should work, or it’s wasted effort, and even GE shouldn’t be ordered to pour more millions into a project of doubtful effectiveness.
EPA officials said recently GE fulfilled all of its obligations under the federal order to dredge the river, but also said they don’t know how well the dredging worked. They’re going to be testing fish from the river for years, and maybe in eight years they’ll have an idea whether dredging reduced the level of PCBs.
We don’t doubt dredging pulled out a lot of PCBs. We also don’t doubt it missed a lot of PCBs. The whole effort — sending big metal clamshell dredges down to the unseen river bottom to scoop up silt that came pouring out the sides of the dredge — struck us as hopeless, like trying to clean a whole can of motor oil off your driveway with a spoon.
If a different technology were going to be used — like the vacuum dredging that has been employed elsewhere — then a new effort might be worthwhile. We could also support more attention being paid to contaminated riverbanks. More work should be done — paid for by GE — to restore plant and animal life harmed by the pollution and by the cleanup.
But we are sick of dredging — sick of the fights over it and sick of the unintended consequences, like the tax fiasco in Fort Edward that stems from shifting assessments on the property where the dewatering plant was sited.
We believe dredging was undertaken in good faith. Probably, no one would be happier than GE officials if the project had been wildly successful and the river was found afterward to be PCB-free.
For years, GE pushed environmental fairy tales (“the river is healing itself”) and dragged the case for a cleanup through legal and bureaucratic battles. Once the fight was over, however, GE got the massive project done.
We can’t blame the company now for resisting a reassessment of its effort. Dredging was never guaranteed to work, and it makes no practical sense to extend it — perhaps indefinitely — based on tests that show PCBs are still present.
We tried with dredging. Unless a better technology is available to remove oily gunk from river sediment, it makes no sense to try again.