City battles firm over definition of 'clean'

Newburgh, N.Y., like a growing number of cities, doesn't want pollution contained - it wants it out.

Twenty feet below where Emily Metaxas stands looking out over the Hudson River, toxic coal-tar sludge oozes in the ground, inching its way toward the water.

The diminutive but determined community activist wants it out - not capped or encapsulated and encircled with a fence, but removed from the ground as completely as possible.

"It's not just going to sit there.... This stuff is moving," she says.

Newburgh is at the vanguard of a national struggle between evolving environmental technologies and attitudes and concerns about cost. This once-industrial city - like thousands of others across the Northeast and Upper Midwest - is coping with hazardous industrial residues as it tries to revitalize itself and its historic waterfront, where Washington once camped in an old farmhouse.

Like a growing number of cities, Newburgh has taken its battle to court. But while legal wrangling over who is responsible for cleaning up toxins isn't unusual, Newburgh's hard-line stance is.

The city is rejecting what it considers to be remedial fixes, like containment, for the hazardous waste and is fighting instead for a more thorough scrubbing of the ground and riverbed. Central Hudson Gas & Electric, the company responsible for the pollution and its cleanup, says that stance is extreme and irrational. It contends that leaving some of the contaminants barricaded and others capped and ensconced deep in the riverbed will bring about the same environmental result at a fraction of the cost.

For years, that's been an acceptable alternative in communities across the country. But it's not good enough for Newburgh. "We are the front line," says City Manager Harry Porr. "Whatever happens here with the ... cleanup, there are hundreds, literally hundreds, of such sites all around the East Coast that still need to be cleaned up."

Similar conflicts are emerging across the US - from the EPA's recent proposal to dredge more than 1 million pounds of PCBs from the Hudson to Oak Park, Ill., where commissioners are seeking to remove thousands of pounds of contaminated soil from a local park. Like them, the Newburgh battle reflects a growing belief on the part of many Americans that containing toxins just isn't enough.

But critics say that comprehensive cleanup proposals are prohibitively expensive, and that less costly alternatives, like capping, can bring about the same environmental result. "It's tempting for people who don't have to pay for it to say that dredging is a way to go, because, in theory, you can remove all the contaminants," says Jeffrey Clock, Central Hudson's director of environmental affairs. "But it's far more complex."

Many environmentalist agree the issue is complex, but they argue that advances in technology have made it possible to safely remove contaminants that were once thought best left undisturbed and isolated. At the same time, problems with sites capped and contained 20 years ago are causing many environmental experts to question that as a solution.

"Can we rely on containment? I don't think so. We've got to be a lot more proactive in terms of removing contaminants from the system," says Ronald Scrudato, an environmental expert at the State University of New York in Oswego. "More and more people are concerned about hosting these contained facilities, no matter how they're constructed or engineered."

Newburgh's coal-tar sludge, which occasionally bubbles up when the tide is low, is the byproduct of a coal gasification plant that was run by Central Hudson from the late 19th-century until the 1940s. At the time, it was state-of-the-art technology that was used at hundreds of sites throughout the Northeast.

In 1994, the city discovered the pollution and subsequently won a $20 million judgment against the company. To prevent further litigation, Newburgh decided to settle while it was ahead, and the firm agreed to clean up the site in compliance with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC.)

Earlier this year, the company proposed removing a small amount of the coal tar and capping and containing the rest. But what Mr. Clock called "an effective solution," City Manager Porr described as "a coverup, not a cleanup." The DEC sent the proposal back to Central Hudson. The company is currently working on a more thorough remedy.

The city is fighting for a thorough dredging and "dynamic underground stripping," a new technology that uses steam to clean coal tars from the ground.

Central Hudson is balking at both the technology, which it says won't work well that close to the river, and the cost. Clock estimates the city's proposals would run upward of $40 million. The capping proposal would have cost between $4 million and $5 million.

But to Metaxas, who stands looking at the new restaurants that have sprung up on the waterfront, cost is not the primary question: "This is about future generations and our ability to leave a waterfront that is clean and healthy. [Central Hudson] put it in, they should take it out."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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