the environment

April 16, 2001

To all of you who celebrate Easter or Passover, my hope is that this has been a happy and fulfilling time for you and your loved ones.

Passover and Easter are not only religious holidays, they are also holidays that celebrate nature in springtime — the planting of crops and the return of the sun and the warmth that crops need to grow. It is the time of year when bird eggs hatch and animals give birth knowing that food is now more readily available. It is the time of the year when I am most acutely aware that we live in a bountiful world and that the environment isn’t just something to argue over — it sustains and allows for life as we know it.

When we talk about the destruction of the environment — well, everyone seems to talk about it except George W. Bush, that is — we often miss the larger point that what is really going on is the destruction of humanity as we know it.

I love the Hudson Valley and I sure do love the river that runs through it. The Hudson River is simply magnificent. And I love rivers, anyway — there is just something mystical and life affirming about them. But unfortunately, the life- affirming quality of the Hudson River is highly questionable nowadays. Our river is so polluted that it definitely causes cancer in laboratory mice and monkeys and, according to a few national and international agencies, probably causes cancer in human beings.

For the past few months, every time I turn on my television I am hit with a really well-done ad questioning whether the PCB pollution in the Hudson river should be dealt with by dredging it and digging up highly toxic areas along the river. These ads are so well done that it actually took me a few viewings to realize that they were paid for by General Electric. This is the same company that spent thirty years dumping toxins into the river in the first place. Now, of course, we can’t come down too hard on GE for that, because at the time that kind of polluting wasn’t against the law. But now it is, and businesses are being held accountable for cleaning up their messes.

If the EPA decides that the river has to be dredged, GE will have to pay for it—and that will cost a lot of money. For what should be obvious reasons, GE doesn’t want to do that.

Still, the EPA and many environmental groups believe that the only way the river can be made safe is to dig the poison out of it. For its part, GE and some other organizations argue that the toxins have now sunk into the sediment and pose little risk to human. They also argue that a dredging operation would disturb the river for a long time, stirring up those toxins. As far as I can tell this is a lie — a well-constructed lie, but a lie nonetheless.

PCBs are a nasty piece of work. They’re so nasty that the use of them was banned by the EPA in 1979, twenty years ago. By no small coincidence, this is also about how long this argument between GE and the EPA has been going on. PCBs are classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by numerous national and international health organizations, including the EPA, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the World Health Organization.

No doubt, GE is currently hung up on the word “probable.” Probable is not “for sure” — so why, GE asks, should they be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with something that is only “probable”? Of course, as a citizen of the Hudson Valley, I’m hung up on the word probable, too. To me, probable means that if I drink out of the Hudson River or eat its fish, I am probably going to die. That’s how I respond to the word “probable” — how about you?

For me, one of America’s great patriots and a personal hero of mine is the Hudson Valley’s own Pete Seeger. To be honest, I could care less what any organization says. If Pete Seeger says these things need to be dredged out, then that’s good enough for me.

The problem with PCBs is that they build up in the environment, increasing in concentration as you move up the food chain. That means that they sink to the bottom where they are ingested by snails, mussels and small fish, which are then ingested by bigger fish, which are in turn ingested by even bigger fish. And then, if you are really, really dumb, you go out to catch and eat one of those suckers. Just remember that we are at the top of the food chain, and will therefore get the highest concentration of PCBs.

The other argument that GE is trying to make is that the river is cleaning itself. Nice try, guys. While there is a sliver of truth to that claim, it is not happening anywhere near to the degree GE says it is.

The fact is that for hundreds of years, human and other wastes were dumped directly into the Hudson River. Those were organic wastes by the way, and when they talk about the river being “eighty percent less polluted than twenty years ago,” this only came about because we stopped dumping sewage into the river.

Additionally, the EPA’s recent Data and Evaluation Report proved that, despite General Electric’s claims, the river is not cleaning itself. Pete Seeger’s organization, Clearwater, has been refuting GE’s claims on this point since 1977. Clearwater’s Executive Director, Madelyn Arana, said recently, “We finally have hard evidence form a third party to refute GE’s claims. Environmental groups have until now been alone in countering GE’s corporate science and rhetoric since 1977, when New York State abdicated its right to go after GE for remediation of contaminated river bottom sediment.”

The EPA’s exposure assessment of the river is also fairly clear: adults, adolescents and children are at risk from ingesting fish or from swimming in parts of the upper and mid Hudson River. The EPA has gotten real specific on these risks. Overexposure for adults and young children would be one day per week for each of the thirteen summer weeks. Now, you can argue that nobody spends that much time frolicking in the Hudson River — and you may be right. But I don’t care—the real point here is that the river is poisonous, and that’s simply unacceptable at any level.

The Hudson River was recently upgraded — or I guess it would be “downgraded” — from the fifth- to the second-most endangered river in the United States. Heck, the stinking Mississippi is safer than the Hudson. This gives people in places like Louisiana bragging rights, which also kind of annoys me.

The Missouri River has the dubious honor of being number one, but the pollution in the Missouri is the result of dams and navigation channels, not poisons like PCBs. So one could really say that our Hudson River is the most toxic river in our country today.

And this fact has an affect on millions of people — ten million people live within a half-mile of the Hudson River. Many more millions live within just two miles. That so many people are affected by a toxic river should be entirely unacceptable to us as citizens.

In the meantime, we now have an administration in the White House that seems to think that higher business profits are more important than taking care of the environment. They believe it would be a bigger sin to cut into GE’s annual profits — which run into the billions — by forcing them to clean up the river, and save the Hudson River and, by extension, the millions of people who live near it.

This is what’s known as very “Bushy logic.” For twenty years, countries all over the world worked to develop the Kyoto agreement to diminish toxic gases, especially carbon dioxide. But Bush announces: we ain’t signing.

As a matter of fact, Clinton didn’t want to sign it either. Which makes sense when you think about it, because they both got money as candidates from the same folks who would be forced to clean up their polluting ways.

And at the end of the day, the U.S. doesn’t want to sign the Kyoto Accord because we are the worst polluting offenders in the world. The Kyoto agreement would cost U.S. businesses a lot more money than what they routinely spend in campaign contributions — so businesses keep dumping money into the political arena and the politicians keep letting them produce, sell and dump poison gas.

The fact is: global warming is real and we need to start thinking now about how we are going to fix it. Someday you and I will be standing in our living rooms, knee deep in salt water, saying, “Geeze, maybe we should have dealt with this.”

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