The majestic Hudson River Valley, the site of pivotal Revolutionary War battles and cradle of the modern-day environmental movement, is again the heart of a conflict that could transform the way the country protects and restores its natural landscapes.
After a decade of study, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a massive, $460 million dollar plan to dredge "hot spots" in a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson to rid its riverbed of more than 1 million pounds of toxic chemicals.
The General Electric Co., which dumped polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, over a 30-year period, calls the EPA's proposal "outrageous" and "absurd." It claims the river is healing on its own, and pledges to fight at every turn.
At the heart of their strategy is a direct attack on the 20 year-old Superfund toxic-waste law, which requires industrial polluters to foot the bill for the cleanup. If successful, environmentalists contend GE could scuttle future efforts to clean up hazardous waste sites, setting back the nation's environmental health by decades. GE says they're only trying to reform a cumbersome and punitive law to make it more efficient and fair.
The outcome could ripple across the more than 700 US communities where Superfund sites are in various stages of clean-up, as well as hundreds of others where hazardous-waste sites have yet to be identified.
The fight also has revived one of the nation's most contentious debates, which was first sparked in the wake of the 1978 Love Canal toxic waste crisis: When chemicals that were dumped legally are later found to be hazardous, who should pay?
"There really wasn't a good way to do it," says Tod Delaney, president of First Environment Inc. in Riverdale, N.J. "We either tax the entire public to do it, or we have the people who are responsible pay for it."
Superfund is now in its 20th year. While it has been roundly criticized as inefficient and costly, it has also been praised for restoring to health more than 220 dangerous sites.
But Superfund remains one of the most controversial laws on the books.
In almost every session of Congress, critics try to overhaul it. But in the end, much of the reform has come from within the agency, which has streamlined its practices and begun interpreting the law more flexibly.
Last Thursday, at a celebration to mark its 20th anniversary, EPA Administrator Carol Browner praised the Clinton administration for pumping more resources into the agency and boasted that "Superfund has completed cleanups at three times as many sites in the last seven years as in all the prior years ... combined."
But that doesn't allay critics like GE's Jack Welch. To him, the law is fundamentally unfair - punishing companies for acting in a manner that was perfectly legal at the time. His sentiments are reflected throughout the business community.
And while Superfund has withstood dozens of court challenges in the past, many critics are hoping GE, with its vast resources and legislative clout, will succeed where others failed.
Indeed, GE has gone to federal court insisting the law is unconstitutional, because it gives the EPA the power to unilaterally order remedial action without a "neutral hearing" beforehand or a "timely judicial review" afterward.
It's tapped Laurence Tribe, one of the nation's leading constitutional lawyers, to spearhead the challenge. "Everyone knows the Superfund law has to be reformed," says GE's spokesman Mark Behan.
But critics contend the company has a larger objective: to gut US environmental laws. "That's clearly GE's goal," says Ned Sullivan of Scenic Hudson in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Instead, they need to recognize their corporate responsibility, stop spending money on public relations and lawsuits, and work cooperatively to restore the Hudson."
But GE has argued that dredging up PCBs in the Hudson, which are now buried under layers of silt and sediment, will itself wreak environmental havoc.
And Neal Orsini, a restaurant owner and recreational boater in Fort Edward, N.Y., where the chemicals were first dumped, agrees: "They're encapsulated right now; dredging will stir them up and set this river back 10, 20 years. I'm heartbroken over it."
But others who live and play along the Hudson contend the short-term disruptions brought about by the dredging will ensure the long-term health of the river. "The real tragedy would be to have this pristine-looking river ... and underneath was this ticking time bomb," says Peter Balint, a Hudson Valley resident who sails on the river.
Both sides have an arsenal of examples to support their cases. A mandatory 60-day comment period is now under way. EPA is expected to announce its final cleanup plans in June.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society