Dredging up junk science

Posted: Aug 03, 2001 12:00 AM
When the Bush administration lands on the same side of an issue as The New York Times editorial board, Sen. Hillary Clinton and the Sierra Club, it's time to clear out the cockpit. The administration's latest junk science decision should cause Bush supporters to wonder: Is Al Gore secretly manning the EPA? This week, Bush's Environmental Protection Agency ordered General Electric Co. to fork over nearly half a billion dollars to dredge up long-buried chemicals from New York's Hudson River. That's exactly what the Clinton-Gore administration proposed in an eleventh-hour decree last year -- despite heated opposition from local residents, flimsy evidence of harm from the chemicals, probable injury to the natural habitat, and certain damage to the economy. This massive, federally mandated cleanup will ruin the landscape and cost precious jobs in blue-collar communities along the river, but it will keep Beltway bureaucrats, lawyers and eco-whiners employed for decades. "This is a tremendous environmental victory," crowed Chris Ballantyne of the Sierra Club. A Times editorial called EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman's decision "admirable." Sen. Clinton declared dredging "the right position, based on the science, to take." The pro-dredgers claim that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) embedded in the river bottom pose a grave cancer risk and must be completely eliminated. GE produced the chemicals in the manufacturing of electrical transformers. The company legally disposed of its PCB-contaminated waste into the Hudson from the 1940s until 1977, when the chemical was banned. Since that time, the tainted sediment has been buried by layers and layers of mud. Commerce and tourism on the banks are healthy; locals swim freely and safely in the river; and at least one town along the targeted area taps the river for drinking water. A review of the current scientific literature shows there is no credible evidence of increased human cancer risk from exposure to trace levels of PCBs. Studies of workers exposed to high PCB levels and studies of people who ate PCB-contaminated fish showed no increased cancer risk when compared to non-exposed populations. Now, it's true that PCBs can cause cancerous tumors in animals -- but only after you inject enormous doses of the chemical into lab mice over prolonged periods. "But what about the fish?" the enviros wail. What about them? Thanks to sensible, minimally disruptive remediation efforts over the past three decades, fish populations are thriving. That might not be the case if the Clinton-Gore-Bush-Whitman plan goes through. The proposed "cleanup" would involve dredging some 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the Hudson -- 19 hours a day, six days a week, six and a half months a year for an estimated five years. At least two new hazardous waste plants would be built on the river or its banks to process the PCBs, and an estimated 45,000 tons of waste a day would be hauled out to non-existent landfills (sure to be opposed by the same NIMBY enviros that created this mess). According to the grass-roots activist group CEASE (Citizen Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation), which has opposed dredging for nearly a quarter-century, the EPA project would also destroy 97 acres of prime aquatic habitat, killing or displacing all of the creatures that live there, and destabilize or destroy 17 miles of Hudson River shoreline. Tim Havens, a small businessman who heads CEASE, told me this week he was "overwhelmingly disappointed" in the Bush administration's decision to carry out the Clinton-Gore plan. Havens blasted the EPA's arrogant secrecy and shoddy science. Whitman has never visited the affected counties and didn't even pay residents the courtesy of informing them of the decision before telling the press. "We're staunch Republicans in these communities -- working class citizens, small businesspeople, farmers, homeowners and housewives," Havens told me. "We're the backbone of the American economy, and we thought Bush and his people would be a lot friendlier. They decided to take the easy way out." Havens warns: "We'll remember in November" when Bush ally and dredging proponent, GOP Governor of New York George Pataki, is up for re-election. On the science, economics and politics of this dredging debacle, one thing's crystal clear: The Bush administration has mucked up big time.