Politics & Policy

Soaking the Taxpayers

The EPA's Hudson River mandates are a waste of resources.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will let General Electric delay the dredging of the Hudson River — which the agency had ordered GE to undertake several years ago in order to further reduce levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The delay will allow GE to complete work on a “sediment-processing facility” by 2007.

Environmentalists are characteristically outraged. “We think this is a big mistake,’’ says Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. As he characterizes the situation, the EPA is acting as a pawn serving the interests of a foot-dragging, environmentally irresponsible GE.

But exactly who is a pawn of whom here?

Up until PCBs were banned by the government in 1977, GE legally disposed of the chemicals by releasing them into the Hudson during the manufacture and processing of insulation materials. That practice ended, however, when it was banned under pressure from environmental groups. Noting that PCBs had been shown to cause cancer in laboratory rodents, the EPA declared that the chemicals might also pose a cancer risk to people — and so it ordered GE to remove even trace levels of PCBs from the river.

The actual reason behind the EPA’s order remains very murky. A few years back, I called the EPA and asked, “What is the compelling factor that made the EPA order GE to spend an estimated one billion dollars to undertake the removal of PCBs from the river?” The EPA spokesman first told me that they wanted the PCBs removed because “they cause cancer.” She omitted the stipulation “in rats.” When I told her that the National Cancer Institute said that exposure to PCBs in the Hudson did not contribute to human cancer, the EPA spokesperson demurred, saying the EPA was also “concerned about the health of the river.”

It remains unclear exactly what the ideal state of “river health” is supposed to be.

Given that the EPA has been working on the Hudson River Project for more than ten years, taxpayers’ costs have likely run into the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. GE, as mentioned, will spend nearly a billion dollars to comply with GE’s mandates — and, of course, will have to pass these costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices on products.

What will the average consumer get for these enormous hidden costs in higher taxes and inflated purchase prices? Absolutely nothing. No life will be saved. No illness will be prevented. Why? Because trace levels of PCBs do not pose a threat — of cancer or any other disease — to human health.

The Hudson River “PCB project” is a sham — the perfect example of a government mandate involving extraordinary costs but accomplishing nothing.

Yesterday I passed a huge New York City construction project where a few workers had been injured by the earth-moving machinery in place to construct a new building. It occurred to me that while no one — not one person — ever died or was injured because of trace levels of PCB in the Hudson River, some workers on the PCB removal project, with all its heavy machinery and intense labor, may well die or suffer serious work-related injuries.

Where is the outrage? If you want to tell the EPA what you think of them terrorizing us with phantom threats while posing as a guardian of health, you can contact the EPA Administrator at: Johnson.Stephen@epa.gov.

  –  Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.