ALONG much of its 315-mile run from the Adirondacks south to the New York City harbor, the Hudson River is cleaner than it was two decades ago. There is less floating garbage, less raw sewage, fewer dead fish. Yet the Hudson still faces a major threat from a toxic enemy: PCBs, (polychlorinated biphenyls) from a 40-mile stretch of river north of Albany.
A bitter and stultifying debate between government officials, business interests, and environmentalists over how to clean the river and who should pay for the effort has blocked progress.
Presence of the PCBs, suspected carcinogens, led state officials in 1976 to ban all fishing in the upper Hudson and commercial fishing for striped bass anywhere in the river. They have since issued health advisories suggesting limits on fish consumption.
PCBs form a colorless, odorless liquid. They were used as an insulator and lubricant in the manufacture of heavy electrical equipment. The company stopped producing the PCBs in 1977.
Environmentalists are pleased by New York Governor Mario Cuomo's June 7 veto of legislative language in the state budget that would have prevented the state from moving ahead with its plan to dredge 250,000 pounds of PCB-contaminated sediment from the river bottom.
The General Electric Company, which dumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PCBs into the upper Hudson between 1946 and 1976, had lobbied hard for the legislation. If passed, the state would have had to stall its cleanup plans until the Environmental Protection Agency completed a lengthy review - expected to take about 18 months.
Environmentalists charge that GE is trying to delay the cleanup and prevent the EPA from taking the Hudson on as a federal Superfund project. ``We've been working on this since 1976 and every time it appears something meaningful is going to happen, GE steps in to derail it,'' says John Mylod, executive director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a regional environmental advocacy group based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
If the dredging effort moves forward, it could cost some $280 million over several years. If the EPA took on the task under its federal Superfund, the agency could collect cleanup costs from the responsible party, in this case from GE. Without EPA involvement, New York could pay the whole cost itself.
GE favors biologically detoxifying the PCBs in place, rather than dredging, to clean the river. ``We think the best way to have an environmentally sound improvement in the Hudson is to biodegrade the PCB molecules in the river,'' says Jack Batty, spokesman for GE.
Mr. Batty argues that to some degree PCB detoxification occurs naturally. Yet research by GE and others, he says, has proved in a laboratory setting that the addition of specific nutrients can effectively speed up the process. He says GE hopes to demonstrate by 1991 that this biodegradation process also will work in the Hudson.
Many environmentalists and state officials remain skeptical. ``To put that idea forward at this point as a realistic alternative to dredging is a just a complete hoax,'' says Brigette Barclay, Clearwater's environmental director.
If GE's effort succeeds, says R. W. Groneman, a spokesman for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, it will revolutionize the treatment of toxic waste. ``However at the moment the theory is a wish and a hope,'' he says. ``The state has to proceed with the real-world situation, which is that there are poisons in the river that need to be removed.''
Though not enamored of landfills, many environmentalists say dredging can get at the PCB problem faster and more decisively.
They note that the EPA Superfund is in the early stages of similar PCB cleanups in the harbors of Waukeegan, Ill., and New Bedford, Mass., and on the St. Lawrence River. In each case the contaminated sediment is to be transported to an enclosed landfill, where water is removed and the PCBs are treated - incinerated, chemically extracted, or biologically detoxified.
Peter Borelli of the Natural Resources Defense Council says he is willing to keep an open mind on GE's approach to the problem: ``I'd like to see any promising research that GE is carrying on both accelerated and encouraged... I don't think there should be either a rivalry or a reluctance to cooperate here.''
For the time being, the EPA is keeping its options open on the Hudson case. In 1984 the agency recommended that no action be taken on the PCB-contaminated sediment. ``However, the state of New York remains hopeful that EPA, which now has much more data from the state in hand, will support the state's dredging proposal or come up with its own plan. We've agreed to reassess the situation,'' says Kim Helper, an EPA spokeswoman for the New York region.