Published in the December 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The General Electric Superfraud” outlines the failure of GE’s efforts to remove its factories’ pollutants from the Hudson River. The full article is free to read at Harpers.org through September 16. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 166-year archive.
On the shoulder of Mount Marcy, New York’s highest peak, it rises. From lofty yet humble beginnings at Lake Tear of the Clouds, the river winds through the Adirondacks, coursing 300 miles south to the harbor at the foot of Manhattan. Henry Hudson, an Englishman lost on the way to Cathay, arrived at the estuary’s mouth in 1609, following its path until declining depth and salinity disqualified it as a potential northwest passage to “the islands of spicery,” the ultimate prize of a cartographically challenged age. His Dutch sponsors, hoping to emulate French success in the fur trade, founded New Amsterdam beside what they termed the “North River.” In 1664, the English seized all of New Netherland, rechristening New Amsterdam “New York” and the North River the “Hudson.”
A century later, the river became a symbol of national pride: the spine of a young republic that the British sought to break, only to be thwarted by George Washington’s shrewd labors along its shores. With characters like Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving cultivated a native lore in the valley’s fertile soil. Thanks to Thomas Cole, the area’s dramatic scenery came to stand for the American landscape; its wildness evocative of a spiritual sublimity suffused with an ethereal light. Soon steamboats debuted on the river, making efficient transit a reality, and with the opening of the Erie Canal, the engine of commerce quickened. America awakened to a new economy of scale. Quarries, foundries, cement plants, and brickyards replaced tanneries and gristmills.
As early as 1833, Cole regretted his romanticizing of the valley, which proved so effective the area risked ruin at the hands of tourism and industry, concerns reflected in The Course of Empire, his five-canvas chronicle of civilization’s advance and decay. In the next century, General Electric, an emblem of American capitalism founded by Thomas Edison, joined other manufacturers on the Hudson, establishing its Industrial and Power Capacitor Division at two plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, adjacent towns stacked along the river’s eastern bank fifty miles north of Albany. By the 1970s, the Hudson was an open sewer and fodder for Johnny Carson—its fish, poison; the eggs laid by its birds of prey, toxic waste.
The picture downstream of Hudson Falls was ghastly. Heavy metals, DDT and dioxins, tailings from pulp and paper mills, municipal sewage, and other contaminants presented a frightening scene. At Rogers Island, a tiny residential cloister in the river off Fort Edward, one could sit and watch a ceaseless stream of bloated wastepaper float by, colored whatever hue Hercules pigments was blending up in Glens Falls that day. But it was polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that environmental regulators identified as the chemicals of chief concern.
Before these “probable human carcinogens” were banned in 1977, PCBs were wantonly spewed from GE’s plants, and they continue to be detected at high levels in riverbed sediments and fi sh. For years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation had abrogated its enforcement authority, unofficially sanctioning GE’s malfeasance. But pressure from several national NGOs headquartered in New York, as well as from Hudson-centric groups downriver from the plants, furnished a fresh impetus to act. Environmentalists had seized upon dredging the riverbed as the surest cure for the Hudson’s ills, and by the early 1980s the DEC warmed to the idea of doing its job, pushing for a dredging remedy to be paid for by GE. When the corporation and its unlikely allies in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls—company towns distrustful of bureaucracies—proved immovable objects for the state, the EPA stepped in, bringing the full force of the federal government to bear. In 2002, the agency issued a formal decision that called for dredging, ending GE’s overt resistance and getting the ball rolling (albeit in the manner of Rube Goldberg) toward the $780 million project that commenced this past spring. Over the next six years, some 1.8 million cubic yards of sediment containing roughly 250,000 pounds of PCBs will be removed from 490 acres of riverbed.
Read the full story here.