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October 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet

by Johanna Congleton

After more than 30 years of dumping toxic waste into the Hudson River, General Electric has yet to learn a lesson most children grasp in kindergarten - when you make a mess, clean it up.

Since 1946, GE has spewed more than 1 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls into the Hudson from two New York plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. The company was forced to cease dumping in 1977, when PCBs were banned in the United States due to their links with cancer and developmental abnormalities. But these dangerous chemicals still lie in sediment on the river bottom.

"When people eat fish caught from the river, they face serious health risks from the high levels of PCBs that accumulate in fish tissue," said Baret Pinyoun, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club. "But GE is more concerned about money than our health."

Of the Hudson River's 315 miles, 200 are listed as a federal Superfund site - an area contaminated by hazardous waste that poses a risk to public health. GE is responsible for more of these sites than any other corporation. While the goal of designating a Superfund site is to clean it up, GE has successfully stalled remediation through political influence. In the past year and a half, the company has donated $356,600 to federal political candidates, and has been successful in blocking the release of the Environmental Protection Agency's cleanup proposal for two decades. The company also gets by with a little help from its political friends: Two years ago, Rep. Gerry Solomon (R-N.Y.) retired from Congress and went to work as a lobbyist for GE.

General Electric has fought tooth and nail to avoid a costly cleanup of the Hudson, claiming that dredging PCB-laden silt from the river bottom will only cause more problems. In fact, GE has shelled out more than $10 million for public-relations campaigns. The company has run numerous print, radio and television ads telling people that the river is "cleaning itself," and that if PCBs are removed, they will be dumped on local farm land.

"That is ridiculous," said Pinyoun. "PCBs don't naturally break down or clean themselves up. And the EPA is identifying secure, off-site landfills to contain the dredged material. They aren't going to dump it on farm land."

"Their misinformation campaign is as bad as the tobacco industry telling us that cigarettes aren't bad for our health," said Jim Mays, co-chair of the Atlantic (New York) Chapter's Hudson River Committee. "They should hold themselves accountable to the damage they've done and spend their money on cleanup, not propaganda."

Club activists have been working hard to dispute GE's claims. Last June, GE held "public information meetings" to promote its own study on the Hudson's "remarkable recovery." However, protesters had their voices and signs ready before each meeting and turned most of the publicity against GE.

"We stole their thunder," said Pinyoun. "It's great, because a lot of the groups we're working with are focusing on the scientific side of the Hudson cleanup, while the Club has been a key player in grassroots outreach."

The Club also ran its own print and radio ads stressing corporate accountability to counter the misinformation GE has generated. The Club will continue its public-education efforts this October, when it sets sail along the Hudson with Clearwater - a fellow river-watching group. Club activists will hold forums in communities along the upper Hudson to educate those who are most affected by the pollution.

The EPA is due to release a cleanup proposal this December, which will be followed by a final plan in June 2001. Now is the chance for the public to make sure GE learns a lesson it should have realized long ago: Whether it's spilled apple juice or toxic waste, whether you're 5 years old or a corporate giant - clean up the mess.

To Take Action:
Contact the EPA and urge them to order General Electric to clean up the Hudson and stick to their December 2000 and June 2001 cleanup deadlines.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner
Ariel Rios Building, Room 3000
1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20460
(202) 564-4700.

For more information:
Contact Baret Pinyoun at (518) 587-9166 or

Wetlands Slip Through Loophole

by Johanna Congleton

Two years ago, it became a lot easier for developers to turn wetlands into strip malls and golf courses. It's also been smooth sailing for mining companies that want to dredge streams for sand and gravel - all without any environmental review.

They've been exploiting a 1998 court ruling that struck down the Tulloch Rule - a federal regulation that prevented developers from draining wetlands without applying for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Tulloch Rule's demise created a loophole in the Clean Water Act that allows developers to ditch and drain wetlands and excavate streams without a permit or public notification. In fact, new earth-moving equipment has been developed in order to take advantage of the loophole.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that developers and mining interests have drained and destroyed more than 20,000 acres of wetlands and channelized more than 150 miles of streams since the rule was knocked down.

"The court ruling created great confusion as to what was regulated and what was not, and developers have taken advantage of that confusion to wreak havoc on streams and wetlands," said Robin Mann, chair of the Club's National Wetlands Working Group. "Some developers have even been coached by regulatory officials on how to take advantage of the loophole. This destruction threatens America's water quality, flood protections, a wide array of wildlife, and hunting and fishing opportunities for millions of Americans."

To Take Action:
The comment period on this rule ends Oct. 16, so immediate action is necessary. Write the Army Corps of Engineers and urge the agency to apply full Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands by clarifying that any destructive activity - such as sidecasting, clearing and backfilling - on wetlands always requires environmental review. Also urge them to develop stronger language to protect streams from pollutants that are sent downstream by ditching and dredging, and to finalize the rule as soon as possible.

Mike Smith, Office of the Chief of Engineers
Further Revisions to Definition of Discharge of Dredged Material
441 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20314-1000

For more information:
Contact the Sierra Club at (202) 547-1141;

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