[Conversation] | Murky Waters, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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Harper's Magazine writer David Gargill on General Electric's failed Hudson River cleanup

In December of 2009, Harper’s Magazine published “The General Electric Superfraud,” a cover story investigating GE’s efforts to clean up the toxic chemicals, known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that the company’s plants dumped into the Hudson River between 1947 and 1977. The story’s author, David Gargill, concluded that the contamination of the riverbed was far worse than had been reported, and that the current project to dredge the river, brokered between GE and the Environmental Protection Agency, would ultimately fail. After the story was published, GE vice president Ann Klee called it “superflawed,” arguing that “there is no credible evidence of an ‘underground lake’ of PCBs leaking into the Hudson River.” The EPA has since announced that GE fulfilled its commitment to the federal government. But, as the New York Times reported earlier this month, analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that the opposite is true. In a letter to the EPA, Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, wrote that “unacceptably high levels” of PCBs remain in the Hudson. “The initial goals of the remedy have not been met,” he concluded, “and may not be met for decades.” Last week, Harper’s president and publisher, John R. MacArthur, caught up with Gargill to discuss N.O.A.A.’s findings and their implications for the future of the Hudson River.

What was your reaction when you saw the story?

It’s sort of crazy to be vindicated seven years after the piece has been out in the world. But I really wasn’t surprised. So much ink had been spilled on the subject by the time I turned my attention to it. And the sheer number of times incorrect data was published was just galling. There is this number that is still reported, that GE released 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river during the capacitor division’s forty-year history there. When I asked GE where the figure came from, they said it was a regulator’s number. And when I asked the EPA where that number came from, they said they didn’t even know how you would come up with such a number.

During the course of my research, I found an internal memo from GE titled “PCB: An Industry Problem?” from 1969. In it, the company said they went through 10 million pounds of PCBs a year but could only account for 9 million in terms of product shipped. So they were losing a million pounds a year, somehow, of this highly toxic chemical compound. But from 1947 to 1977 they claimed only 1.3 million had ended up in the river. This was the figure that the EPA predicated the cleanup on, in its 2002 Record of Decision. But the actual figure must be exponentially larger. By chance, 1.6 million pounds wound up underneath a parking lot adjacent to one of the plants. That’s more than they assumed went into the Hudson, even though they had intentional outfall pipes dumping this stuff in the river.

I remember when I went to promote the piece, back in 2009, I called the environmental group Hudson Riverkeeper, and the reaction was very explicit. They said they couldn’t and didn’t want to help promote it because it would make them look like they were had by GE. They were all horrified. I don’t know if you ran into that attitude. They were unusually candid with me.

Certainly, Riverkeeper, at least the highest level, was wary of any criticism of the cleanup. The way the cleanup was structured with the EPA and GE, if after the first phase of dredging GE could demonstrate that it wasn’t working, the company could opt out of the second phase, leaving a bankrupt superfund to complete the job.

Many people I talked to referred to the Hudson River cleanup as the Holy Grail of the environmental movement. GE had such influence in New York—you had Gerry Solomon, who was referred to as the “congressman from GE,” and you had Hugh Carey, the former governor, who pledged to drink a glass of PCBs while standing on the riverbank. Environmental groups thought that if they could get dredging done in the Hudson—if they could hold GE accountable in New York—then they could hold polluters accountable anywhere. The cleanup began to take on a symbolic meaning. And even when it became clear that it might not be a comprehensive solution, they were hell-bent on advocating it and pushing it through.

It reminds me a little bit of the debate over NAFTA, where the environmental groups all agreed to support the trade deal because the Clinton administration promised all sorts of extravagant cleanup projects along the Rio Grande. But none of them ever happened. The groups got used—like these guys.

It always seems to be a quid pro quo. There is some currency they derive from holding GE accountable. And if it is just the perception of accountability, that’s okay too, because they still appear effective.

Another hard thing about promoting the piece was that it was pretty hopeless. There wasn’t a clear solution. You have this plume of PCBs, which is 400 feet deep, and it is locked into the riverbed. What can be done?

You are supposed to dig until it is gone. In a practical sense that requires a lot of money, and the stuff that you dig up has to go somewhere. The sediment that was dredged from the river was dried and shipped by rail to Texas. The logistics of that alone are pretty daunting. And that’s just digging out a fraction of the PCB-contaminated sediments from the river. One of the environmental consultants GE spoke to told me that they initially thought the most complete solution would be to divert the river above the plants and blast a new river channel, permanently altering the Hudson’s course. That would have been the most effective thing to do.

In the real world that’s probably not going to happen. But there is certainly more dredging that could go in the riverbed near the plants. The river is tidal, and it floods occasionally. They haven’t even sufficiently sampled—to my knowledge—or dealt with the flood planes. So there is a lot that could be done.

Do you think Mr. Seggos’s letter to the EPA, which stated that the goals of the cleanup have not been met, will have an impact?

The timing of the letter is interesting. The news of it broke the very day that GE welcomed its employees to its new Boston headquarters. Oddly enough—or actually it is perfectly apt—Governor Cuomo came out and backed the DEC on that same day. And as you know, Cuomo draws a lot of water, pun intended, and he was very upset that GE chose Boston over New York for its new headquarters. So he may go after this pretty hard. Ultimately, the EPA is the entity that needs to be convinced, and it will likely require pressure from the entire coalition of Hudson River–oriented NGOs to make that happen. Then, once the EPA is on board, regulatory pressure can be put on GE.

Whether or not that will happen, who is to say? But hopefully we can deal with the problems that already exist in the river before we start adding to them, with current proposals for new commercial-barge moorings north of the city and the escalation of crude-oil shipping concerns in the port of Albany.

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