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Final comments unlikely to alter Hudson dredging

Tuesday's final, frantic day of comment on whether to force General Electric to pay for dredging PCB-laden sediments from the Hudson River is as unlikely to kill the project as the previous four months of discussion, an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman said.

"In general, by the time we get to a point where we make a proposal, we're on solid ground," said EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow. "What comes to light is not usually something totally new that hasn't been considered ... While it doesn't wipe out the 10 years of scientific study, there are concerns, particularly local concerns."

Rarely has an EPA proposal been overturned without a strong consensus, but the Hudson River proposal was met with high emotions on both sides. Bellow said she was unsure if public comment ever killed an EPA proposal. The EPA's final decision is expected in August.

The proposal made in December would make GE pay for the $460 million dredging of PCB "hot spots" in a 40-mile stretch of the river north of Albany to General Electric's former factories at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. GE discharged 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls into the river before 1977, when the chemicals linked to cancer in tests on laboratory animals were banned. Their effect on people isn't clear.

Tuesday's last-minute rush of comments to the EPA's Manhattan office included materials from two principals in the dispute -- General Electric and the environmental group Scenic Hudson. But the rush also included many individuals. From 6:30 p.m. Monday to 11 a.m., 10 percent more e-mails were received than had been received in the previous four months, bringing the total to 33,000 by midday Tuesday.

They joined mail in 16 cartons, each 16- by 12-inches around and 10 inches deep, and thousands of pages of transcripts from nearly 700 speakers at 11 public hearings.

General Electric's filings on Tuesday included a 250-page commentary and 20 technical reports.

"It is incomprehensible that, in a river the EPA says is safe for drinking and all recreational activities, and where conditions continue to improve, EPA proposed a plan which could destroy the river in a misconceived attempt to save it," said Stephen Ramsey, a GE vice president. "In pursuing this ill-advised and potentially dangerous course of action, EPA is closing its eyes to the evidence that PCB levels in fish are declining, and that dredging presents real, proven risks to local communities."

The company's comment, using data from the state and federal governments as well as its own researchers, stated that dredging would release more PCBs from deep in the sediment and threaten the health of communities up and down the river.

Scenic Hudson's comment argued that the EPA proposal doesn't go far enough. The group stated that the EPA failed to include 39,000 pounds of contaminants that fit its criteria, said Scenic Hudson's Ned Sullivan. That will require the EPA to dredge 14 percent more sediment and increase the cost of dredging 8 percent, he said.

Sullivan said he is confident EPA officials will affirm the December proposal in favor of dredging, but he is concerned the new administration in Washington might change that. President George W. Bush entered office after the EPA made its proposal and he has appointed a new EPA administrator, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat who led congressional support for dredging, doubts the Republican president would reverse the EPA's decision even though Bush has rescinded some environmental orders by former President Bill Clinton.

Among those supporting dredging are New York Gov. George Pataki -- a Bush ally -- state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and some of New York's largest labor unions. This week, city councils in Albany and New York City formally supported dredging.

Also Tuesday, environmentalists released state data they said shows PCBs taken from the Hudson are more widespread and are threatening more people than previously thought. The data show that in the 1970s, navigational dredging of the river resulted in PCB-laced sediment being dumped on property and sometimes used as fill away from the river.


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