Bottom-Feeder Politics For The Hudson River

by Laura Haight

Pity Governor Whitman. At a recent meeting with New York environmental leaders on the fate of the Hudson River PCB cleanup, she looked strained and uncomfortable.

And why shouldn't she? The EPA administrator was poised to throw out the recommendations her agency had developed after an exhaustive, 11-year review, and proceed with a backroom deal forged with General Electric and dredging opponents. Our meeting was pro forma, an opportunity for her to say she met with environmentalists and for us to express our opposition to such a reversal.

When I pointed out that the Hudson River PCB decision would be a litmus test for her administration, she smirked and said she'd heard those words before. Indeed, in her short tenure as EPA administrator, Governor Whitman (as she prefers to be called) has found herself in a number of difficult situations within the Bush administration.

The case of the Hudson River PCB cleanup, however, may be more of a personal litmus test for Governor Whitman than the others. After all, the Hudson River is a shared resource, framing the eastern border of New Jersey, her home state. New Jersey and New York both suffer the health, economic and environmental consequences from GE's discharge of PCBs into the river for 30 years and its take-no-prisoners approach to avoiding a cleanup.

The day of our meeting found Governor Whitman, the EPA administrator, trying to distance herself from Governor Whitman, the former New Jersey leader. When questioned by Senator Hillary Clinton at a hearing that morning, she denied that she had ever supported the PCB dredging project when she was governor of New Jersey. But environmentalists quickly produced the evidence: a 1998 letter to former EPA administrator Carol Browner from New Jersey's commissioner of environmental protection stating unequivocally that "the only responsible course of action is to safely dredge the contaminated river bottom."

At our meeting, Whitman said she preferred to stick to the science, not the politics of the issue. But the two have never been more inextricably linked. The facts are in, laid out exhaustively in the six-volume document released by the EPA last December, in which the agency recommended a moderate approach: the targeted removal of roughly half the cancer-causing PCBs that continue to wash downstream from "hot-spots" in the upper Hudson River.

It should come as no surprise that environmentalists received no audience from Whitman until late in July, days before the EPA was preparing to come out with a decision favorable to GE. The writing was on the wall that fateful day in December when George Bush was named president. Shortly thereafter, Bush was holed up in an Austin hotel room, meeting with a handful of the nation's top industry leaders, including GE's outgoing CEO Jack Welch.

The EPA has said it will make its decision in the next few days. No doubt both Governor Whitmans are squirming.

Laura Haight is senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group.



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