Rep. Charles Taylor's name has been all over the newspapers lately. But chances are, most of his constituents haven't seen these articles, because they're appearing in New York papers. That makes perfect sense, given that Taylor's latest legislative initiative could have a significant impact on that state's Hudson River -- one of the most polluted in the country.
But why would a congressman representing Western North Carolina concern himself with the best way to clean up a river in New York rather than, say, the French Broad? An Albany paper is offering one possible answer: Because General Electric asked him to.
"Language in a congressional budget bill questioning whether dredging is the best way to clean up contaminated sites like the Hudson River was added at the request of General Electric, the company said Thursday," Albany's Times Union reported on May 13. "A GE spokesman said, however, that it asked U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-North Carolina, to add the language to the budget bill only to enhance the general knowledge about cleanups, not to change any one project."
Another New York paper, the Poughkeepsie Journal, also reported the story. "GE is responsible for a $500 million dredging project in the Hudson north of Albany," the paper explained on May 17. "The company discharged upward of 1 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyl oils into the river from capacitor manufacturing plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Hills for decades until the 1970s. The Hudson was named a Superfund site in 1984. In 2001, the EPA ruled that dredging contamination from parts of a 40-mile stretch of mud is the best cleanup option."
Taylor maintains that the proposed legislation is not intended to obstruct the cleanup. But Rich Schiafo of Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect the Hudson River Valley, calls Taylor's bill "disconcerting in a number of ways. Historically, GE has spared no expense in fighting the cleanup of the Hudson. Our biggest concern is that [the bill] will delay or derail the cleanup."
GE, says Schiafo, has long maintained that the best way to clean up PCB-contaminated rivers isn't dredging but "source control" (limiting or eliminating pollution from the point of origin) and "natural recovery" (leaving the PCBs where they are). Taylor's bill (HR 2361) specifically instructs the EPA to "enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to examine remedial actions at contaminated sediment sites ... [and consider whether] such risk reduction benefits will be achieved significantly faster than other less costly remedial alternatives including source control and natural recovery."
A spokesperson for Taylor's office, who asked to remain anonymous, declined to comment on the legislation but did say, "Congressman Taylor's office rejects the idea that any campaign donations were made in anticipation of this language" in the bill. Taylor's spokesperson also faxed Xpress an excerpt from the May 19 Congressional Record in which Taylor says, "In no way should this study delay or disrupt either Phase One or Phase Two of the planned cleanup of the Hudson River, [or] any other ongoing Superfund site. And I know of no party involved that wishes that delay."
Taylor is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment and Related Agencies, an arm of the House Appropriations Committee. Taylor's subcommittee only recently obtained jurisdiction over EPA funding. And when his aides "wanted to get up to speed on environmental cleanup issues, they brought in GE for a meeting and asked the company what more needed to be done in the area," the Times Union reported, noting, "The company gave $8,250 to Taylor in 2003-04, making it the seventh-largest donor, according to campaign finance records kept by the Center for Responsive Government."
But Taylor apparently didn't stop at simply inserting the requested language into his bill. According to the Times Union, "A member of Taylor's staff said GE drafted the initial language, which then went back and forth between the congressional staff and the company before it was added to the appropriations bill."
What the article didn't report is that GE also operates a plant in Taylor's congressional district -- and the East Flat Rock plant is also listed as a Superfund site. That cleanup, which involved removing topsoil and underground storage tanks, was completed in October 2000. An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the cost, but several environmental watchdog groups estimated it at just over $1 million.
Taylor's bill does not include funding for the dredging study. But Rich Schiafo of Scenic Hudson predicts that the EPA will undertake it because Taylor "holds the purse stings."
The EPA, which is still negotiating with GE on planning for the dredging, refused to comment on Taylor's move. But both newspaper articles quoted EPA spokesman Leo Rosales, who noted in 2001: "This site has been studied for many years, and we have the data to prove that this is the best thing for the river, for the environment, and for the communities here. We've done our homework, we stand behind the science and the remedy selected."
The first phase of the cleanup, a series of test dredges, is scheduled to start next summer. Phase two is the actual cleanup. GE has agreed to fund the testing, according to Robert Goldstein of Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group. But Goldstein, the group's senior attorney and director of the Hudson River Program, said, "GE has not yet signed on to the second phase."
For Goldstein, the study is about the Hudson -- and more. "There's no question this study could derail the cleanup of the Hudson. Natural recovery is what [GE] was trying to sell to these communities [along the Hudson River] years ago. They said the PCBs were capped by a sediment layer; good science has shown us that that is absolutely not the case," he noted, adding, "This is a company that had $4.65 billion in profits last year -- that's profit -- they could afford to pay for this. But this is the tip of the iceberg; GE is responsible for a lot of dredging sites and they're fighting tooth and nail. What we don't need is another study of the most-studied river in the country. And it's surprising that this is coming from a congressman from North Carolina. We're dumbfounded."
The bill passed the House on May 19. A Senate committee version could begin studying it as early as next week, several sources confirmed.