Dredging Politics: A Purely Political Decision

Klutz and Riggs Op-Ed in National Review Online<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

With a few highly visible environmental decisions under its belt, pressure groups and even much of the popular press have labeled the Bush administration as anti-environment and a lapdog for industry interests. Wishing to avoid further political disasters on environmental issues, no one should be surprised with the administration's latest decision to make the General Electric Co. pay nearly half a billion dollars to dredge a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River.

This most recent environmental decision highlights what is becoming a familiar predicament for the administration: Do what is best for people and the environment and pay a high political price for “siding” with industry or go the way of political compromise in an attempt to dispel the negative labels. The Hudson River decision is a clear attempt at the latter.

GE legally discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into a stretch of the river north of Albany, N.Y. until the practice was banned in the 1970s by the Environmental Protection Agency. The plan to remove embedded PCB pollution from the river bottom was proposed in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

To many, it would initially seem both permissively unfair and ecologically insensitive to think that PCBs don't pose a real threat to the folks who live or recreate along the Hudson, or to think that the EPA should refrain from action to remove them from the waterway. However, many in the scientific and local communities oppose dredging the Hudson River, citing its potentially serious and negative effects.

Many in the scientific community argue that there is no hard evidence that PCBs cause health problems. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, finds no indication of augmented cancer rates resulting from long-term occupational exposure to PCBs. And according to a study by Dr. Renate Kimbrough, a senior medical associate with the Institute for Evaluating Health Risks, there is “strong evidence that even long-term human exposure to PCBs at higher levels than are found in the environment is not related to an increase in deaths from cancer or any other diseases.”

Despite the lack of evidence regarding PCB toxicity, one may still argue for a precautionary “better safe than sorry” approach. But as shown in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, no one approach or even mix of approaches to clearing PCBs from the Hudson would be free from risk or likely to be completely effective.

Moreover, studies indicate that the dredging would stir up and release downstream thousands of pounds of PCBs now buried in the sediment. Dredging would also remove or destroy aquatic habitat and food sources, and interrupt the river's sedimentation and other natural processes that are naturally lowering PCB content.

The scientists are not alone in their skepticism towards dredging. Many communities and citizen groups — from local business associations and farmers to environmental groups such as Citizens Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation — are also against the dredging. They're concerned about how it will affect the recreational use and environmental quality of the river, land values, investment, and harbor further concern over the impact of two processing plants and trucks hauling thousands of pounds of river mud. Farmers Against Irresponsible Remediation (FAIR) sued the EPA over the lack of information in their report evaluating the impact from dredging.

Despite the sensible objections to dredging, EPA administrator Christie Whitman went ahead with a decision to force the most expensive dredging plan in history. As with other weakened stances on environmental issues, this course of action smacks of political calculation rather than sound science or policy. It's a strategy of minimizing political damage on environmental issues, one that will surely keep the administration always on the defensive.

Whitman could have made the right decision to not dredge with the support of science and affected communities. She could have stood behind ample scientific evidence supporting the decision; she could have brought this information to the forefront of the debate, helping to communicate it to a broader audience. Equally important, the administration could have given greater voice to the concerns of the community. If so many of the locals oppose dredging, why should the heavy hand of a distant government force them against their will?

Political backlash is probably inevitable from such a decision but the Bush administration does not have to let environmental policy be its Achilles heel. Instead, the administration can successfully make the responsible decisions they're already inclined to make by better leveraging the science and community support for sound environmental policy.

Copyright © 2001 National Review Online