Andrew Cuomo, G.E. and Selling Out the Hudson River!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an editorial today pleading with NY Governor Andrew Cuomo to take a stand in the on-going battle with G.E. to clean up the Hudson River.  The essence of the issue is that G.E. has spent the last six years and $1 billion dredging up much but not all of the toxic chemicals it put in the riverbed, and it is now getting ready to dismantle its cleanup operation. Environmental advocates and scientists are making urgent pleas to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and to New York State to make sure G.E. does not leave before the river job is finished.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who should be leading this battle, is a nonparticipant. He has bowed out, kept his Department of Environmental Conservation on the sidelines, and tossed the ball to the feds.  As stated in the New York Times editorial:

“G.E. says, rightly, that it has fulfilled the terms of the settlement it agreed to with the federal government — a job it spent years trying to evade — and that the river is better off now that 300,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have been removed. But it is refusing to spend a day or a penny more than it has to, and alarms are going off. Two of the three government agencies tasked with guarding the health of the Hudson as the river’s “natural resource trustees” — the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — wrote the Environmental Protection Agency in late September urging that the dismantling be postponed until the E.P.A. conducts a review.

The river and fish are still contaminated, the federal trustees said, echoing the concerns of advocates dismayed that the cleanup won’t reach 136 contaminated acres that lie outside the area covered by the dredging agreement. This includes a silted-up stretch of the Champlain Canal, beside the Hudson, that is unusable for deep-water commercial shipping but cannot be safely dredged until the PCBs are removed.

Oddly, and conspicuously, the third trustee, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, did not sign the letter.

The department answers to Mr. Cuomo, who has absented himself from the clamor against G.E.’s departure. Mr. Cuomo has other priorities — he is trying to persuade G.E. to move its headquarters back to New York. He evidently would rather disappoint New Yorkers who love the river than jeopardize a corporate courtship.

E.P.A. officials say that their options are limited — that the agency can’t reopen the original agreement with G.E., and that the trustees’ letter is not the right tool to compel G.E. to stick around and finish the job. But limited legal recourse does not preclude old-fashioned pressure and moral argument. If New York and Mr. Cuomo went after G.E. over the crippled Champlain Canal — an economic burden on taxpayers and citizens — it could get results.”

G.E. polluted the Hudson River for decades and it has grudgingly taken responsibility for the clean-up.  It should make sure the job is completed.  Unfortunately, during his second term in office, Governor Cuomo’s has consistently sided with corporate interests over those of the people of New York.



  1. I thank Mr. Boyle for the extent and precision of his comments below. I have lived in the Hudson Valley since 1979 and it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The vistas of the river from the hiking trails on the Rockefeller Park Preserve are breath-taking. What GE has done to the Hudson is a sacrilege against nature. Instead of assuming full responsibility for cleaning up its poisonous mess, GE and its management have maintained a begrudging attitude and are trying to use their corporate muscle with state and local government officials to just walk away.


  2. On behalf of Robert Boyle of Cooperstown, New York, I am posting this comment.

    Re “Decision Time on the Hudson” (Editorial, May 25)

    Joseph Goebbels’ adage, that if a big lie is repeated often enough people will believe it, held true for General Electric in “Decision Time on the Hudson” (editorial, May 25) which stated that “GE’s dumping of PCBs was not illegal at the time.”

    This not true, but this misconception is common because it is the intended result of a ceaseless GE big lie campaign proclaiming that the company had permits to discharge PCBs into the Hudson River. Spread everywhere possible by GE, this shamelessly repeated falsehood is designed to dupe the media, the public, and government agencies in a flagrant attempt to escape responsibility for contaminating a 200-mile length of the river, from Hudson Falls down to New York harbor, and turning it into the biggest Superfund site in the nation.

    And GE’s big lie has worked big time. It reached millions on 60 Minutes (Oct. 29, 2000) when Chairman Jack Welch squelched any questioning by Lesley Stahl with his memorable screed: “We didn’t dump! We had a permit from the U.S. Government and the State of New York to do exactly what we did. Do you think I’d come to work in a company that would do that, or condone that? I wouldn’t do it, Lesley! This is nuts!”

    It’s not nuts. If anyone is nuts it’s GE and Jack Welch. From 1947 to the mid-1970s,GE’s close-by Fort Edward and Hudson Falls plants, which used PCBs in electrical capacitors, dumped at least 1.3 million pounds of these toxic chemicals into the river without a permit. Furthermore, this dumping was in direct violation of the Federal Refuse Act of 1899, 33 U. S. Code, § 407, that decrees it “not be lawful” to “discharge, or deposit…any refuse matter of any kind or description whatever other than that flowing from streets and sewers in a liquid state, into any navigable water of the United States, or into any tributary of any navigable water.”

    I discovered the long-ignored 1899 Refuse Act in 1965 while a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and wrote about its great potential to stop water pollution, especially given that half of “any fine imposed” on a polluter “be paid to the person or persons giving information which shall lead to conviction of this misdemeanor.”

    In 1966 I founded the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (which I later renamed Riverkeeper) to end pollution of the river by having members report violators of the Refuse Act. The first conviction came in 1970 against the Penn Central Railroad for spewing oil and other wastes from its Harmon Diesel and Electric Shops into the Hudson through a three-foot diameter concrete pipe dated 1929. The $2,000 bounty from that case and others that followed went to finance our cause.

    In 1970 while researching an article on contaminants in fish, I asked the WARF Institute in Madison, Wis., a highly respected laboratory that I had Sports Illustrated commission, test for mysterious industrial chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, only recently detected in fish and birds in Sweden and birds on the Pacific Coast. The article, “Poison Roams Our Coastal Seas,” appeared in the October 26, 1970, issue of the magazine, and it marked the first time that PCBs had been found in fish in North America, among them striped bass that I collected under state scientific license from the river 30 miles north of Manhattan.

    The article also cited the Refuse Act, but I had no idea of where the PCBs were coming from, despite the fact that I had put together a list of known discharges into the Hudson. There was no notice of PCBs anywhere. Instead the state called the discharges from the two GE plants “raw plating wastes”

    The March, 1971, special issue of Audubon magazine devoted to the Hudson ran an article of mine in which I again cited both the Refuse Act and the PCBs in Hudson River striped bass. Shortly thereafter on November 27, 1971, unbeknownst to me, GE for the first and only time applied for a discharge permit under the Refuse Act. None was granted.

    On August 23, 1973, GE applied to the Environmental Protection Agency for a PCB discharge permit following passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, and on December 20, 1974, 28 and 23 years after the Fort Edward and Hudson Falls plants respectively began dumping tons of PCBs into the Hudson, the EPA granted the company a limited permit to discharge 18 and 20 pounds of “chlorinated hydrocarbons” (PCBs) a day from two outfalls. GE quickly violated the permit.

    In 1975 the EPA informed Ogden Reid, the new Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, of the dumping, and on August 8 the two GE sources of the PCBs became known when the Times broke the news in a front-page story by Richard Severo. Commissioner Reid ordered a hearing, in which I joined members of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association in testifying against GE, and in 1977 the company was found guilty of violating state water quality standards.

    Between 1990 and 2005, GE spent $800 million, repeat $800 million, on a giant propaganda campaign to avoid or delay cleaning up the PCB messes it had made in the Hudson, the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Mass. and a factory in Rome, Ga. The Hudson strategy featured the big lie that GE had permits to do what it did.

    On January 5, 2001, Peter Lehner, New York Assistant Attorney General-in-Charge of the Environmental Protection Bureau, called the company’s bluff: “G.E.’s own records show that the company began discharging PCB’s from its Fort Edward plant in 1947 and from its Hudson Falls plant in 1951. When G.E. submitted a permit application to the federal government in 1973, it reported that it did not have any permits for these discharges. The first permit G.E. obtained was in 1975. Thus, it is not correct that the company had permits between 1947 and 1975.”

    In February, 2002, GE gave in to the EPA’s Record of Decision and, after predictable delay, began dredging in 2009, but the big lie remained alive. On December 27, 2013, GE submitted a report to the Office of the New York State Comptroller saying, “GE held the proper government permits to discharge PCBs to the river at all times required.” (The comptroller’s office manages the Common Retirement Fund, the third largest in the nation with more than one million members, retirees, and beneficiaries and has current estimated net assets of $183.5 billion, including 26,948,500 shares of GE stock.)

    Sharp rebuttal of this big lie to the comptroller’s office came from the Federal Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees in a January 30, 2014, letter to the company that stated, “GE’s discharges of PCBs prior to 1975 were not authorized by any permit.” The Federal Trustees represent the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Department, are assessing the natural resource damages inflicted by GE. Under Superfund law the responsible party is responsible for the injuries caused even if it had a permit.

    GE has announced that it is going to end the dredging project at the end of this season, even though PCB hot spots will remain to contaminate the Hudson. The reason for leaving the scene? GE will have dredged “100 percent of the PCBs that EPA targeted in the comprehensive dredging project that will be completed this year.” Meanwhile on GE’s “Dredging of the Hudson River Chronology” website, the entry for the 1940s-1970s era repeats yet again the big lie: “GE legally uses PCBs at two capacitor plants in Upstate New York. Whenever required, GE held valid permits to discharge PCBs to the Hudson River.”

    GE has reported that so far it has spent more than $1 billion on the cleanup. Add to that the $800 million on propaganda, can anyone seriously believe that the company would have spent one red cent if it actually had a permit?

    Robert H. Boyle
    Roaring Brook Farm, 428 Briar Hill Road Cooperstown, NY 13326