EDITORIAL: Who cleans up after GE?

SOME PROBLEMS DON’T AGE WELL. Just when you think they’ve gone away and made room for the next crisis, the old one pops up again.

And some past problems reappear with a twist. Take the Dewey Loeffel Landfill site in the Rensselaer County Town of Nassau. General Electric and a few other companies dumped 46,000 tons of toxic materials there. It was bad stuff, like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and a chemical called TCE–a cancer-causing product used in dry cleaning. The dumping happened from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s in a meadow not far from the Village of Nassau.

The landfill was shut down in 1970 when it had already begun leaking this toxic brew into local well water. The state Department of Environmental Conservation tried to contain the pollution but couldn’t stop it. Turns out that some of this potentially deadly stuff made its way to a small stream nearby. The stream is a tributary to the Valatie Kill, which joins with the Kinderhook Creek on the way to the Hudson River.

In 2014 there was some good news after Congressman Chris Gibson led an effort to have the federal Environmental Protection Agency take over the mitigation and cleanup. Under EPA supervision a water treatment plant funded by the companies was built on the site, more local wells were monitored and the water was treated at homes near the dump.

Last week Dewey Loeffel was back in the news. The Times Union reported that Mr. Dewey Loeffel, owner of the dump, had used a site near his home a few miles away from his dump, to wash out the trucks he used to transport the chemicals. Tests on and near this second Loeffel site indicate the presence of the same contaminants found at the dump. The Valatie Kill isn’t far away.

Will GE and the other polluter legacy companies also be held accountable for a new cleanup? Some sort of remediation will be needed and somebody has to pay for it. PCBs have distinctive chemical variations that make it possible to know where a particular type of PCB originated. So it might be possible to determine whether GE supplied contaminated material Mr. Loeffel washed off his trucks. Is that fair?

GE has not yet commented on this latest discovery that might connect the company to local pollution. But there is a related local story unfolding on a similar issue. After years of dodging its responsibility for dumping thousands of gallons of PCBs into the Hudson River, GE began a decade ago to dredge and dispose of some sections of river mud north of Troy. It was meant to reduce the contamination.

The initial dredging is now done and GE wants the EPA to certify the job if cleansing the river is finished, with nothing more required. Specifically, the company wants what’s called a certificate of completion, which would protect GE from any future obligation to remove more PCBs from the river. That would be okay if most of the toxic chemicals were gone. But they’re not. Tens of thousands of pounds remain, leaving fish so contaminated that the DEC issues warnings not to eat many species. The remaining chemicals threaten the health of people who live near the river.

Does that affect Columbia County? Maybe. The PCBs dumped in the river by GE have been detected downriver all the way to New York harbor, but there is no detailed map of remaining concentrations identified as PCB hot spots.

“The latest sampling data confirms the overwhelming body of evidence that PCB levels remain unacceptably high in both the riverbed and in fish,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo last December. This week he said the state would sue the federal government if the EPA issued the certificate of completion.

GE made millions–perhaps billions–of dollars selling products that used PCBs and other products that threaten human health. And some part of the company’s healthy profits in the last century and into this one came from the using the cheapest means possible to dispose of its most dangerous waste. The bill has now come due.

In recent years some of the company’s wealth has been spent on TV commercials portraying it as an environmental hero. Expect more of that as the certificate battle heats up. Consider it a form of fake news. On land and in the river GE made huge messes in the Hudson Valley and it’s GE’s job to clean it up. All of it.

Comments are closed.