Pataki Watches Bush, Holding His Breath on PCB Cleanup

The upper Hudson River is particularly inviting at this time of year. Sun glints off the blue-brown water as the wide river meanders through green farmland, the smell of fresh water seducing a casual passerby to dangle a toe in the cool stream. This landscape does not have the dramatic cliffs and rocks of the lower Hudson Valley, and yet it’s stunning.

It is also a toxic-waste dump. Some 200,000poundsof polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCB’s, cling to the murky sediment of the river’s bottom, left there decades ago by General Electric. Indeed, the Hudson River is the nation’s largest Superfund site. The river’s fish are unsafe to eat.

In about a month’s time, President George W. Bush and his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, will have to decide what to do about the Hudson River PCB’s–either dredge the contaminated soil at G.E.’s expense or, as G.E. dearly wishes, leave the PCB’s there. It’s a decision that could have a far-reaching impact on Governor George Pataki and the state’s Republican Congressional delegation, the relationship between the G.O.P. and the environmental movement, and Mr. Bush’s own tattered environmental bona fides.

Mr. Pataki has always played the part of a Republican environmentalist, and he supports the dredging plan announced last December, in the waning days of the Clinton administration. But if he knows whether the Bush administration will abide by that decision, he isn’t saying.

Publicly, “we’re always optimistic,” said Mike McKeon, the Governor’s spokesman. And yet, Mr. Pataki is taking a low profile on the issue. He has not met with Ms. Whitman, instead sending his newly appointed environmental conservation commissioner, Erin Crotty. He has not called Mr. Bush or lobbied White House officials, Mr. McKeon said. By contrast, the Governor did both to urge the President to end the bombing of Vieques.

“We’re very happy that Governor Pataki came out in favor of dredging last November,” said Alex Matthiessen, the executive director of Riverkeeper, an organization pledged to cleaning up the Hudson River. “But we’re disappointed he hasn’t done more since then to promote the plan.”

Some environmentalists believe Mr. Pataki may be trying to distance himself from the issue to avoid taking a political hit if Mr. Bush doesn’t order the dredging. “They think they have the green vote wrapped up no matter what happens,” one environmentalist said of the Governor’s allies. “But if the President doesn’t follow through on dredging, Pataki will be held responsible.”

And there are two New York Democrats running for Governor, Andrew Cuomo and H. Carl McCall, who are poised to make the cleanup an issue next year.

“If they don’t do dredging, it will become a major symbol,” said one Republican consultant. “They have to be extremely careful that the next couple of actions are pro-environment.”

Careful indeed, because the public apparently is wary of Mr. Bush’s green credentials. A June 21 New York Times -CBS News poll found that 46 percent of the respondents disapprove of Mr. Bush’s environmental policy, compared to 39 percent who approve. More startling still for the administration: 55 percent say that protecting the environment is more important than producing energy. And fully 71 percent think that producing energy is Mr. Bush’s priority.

Mr. Bush’s approval ratings are as low as they were in April 2000, after the divisive primary season. The primary campaign ended for all intents and purposes on March 7, 2000, when Mr. Bush won both California and New York, a victory spurred in part by an ad campaign launched by the group Republicans for Clean Air, which turned out to be a shell set up by a Bush ally.

“He has never had a sense of these issues,” said one Republican who has discussed the environment with Mr. Bush. “He just doesn’t comprehend them.”

But now, he may have to. “The Hudson River is the poster child of the Superfund movement,” said Marion Trieste, a consultant to Scenic Hudson, an environmental group. The Hudson River cleanup has become the test case of sorts for the Superfund law, a bill designed to protect human health by forcing polluters to pay for the cleanup of their messes.

What to do with the Hudson River PCB’s has confounded more than one President, and more than one Governor, in the almost 30 years since the chemicals were first found in the river. PCB’s, a class of 209 chlorinated hydrocarbons known to cause cancer in animals and linked to cancer, reproductive problems and neurological impairment in humans, were dumped into the river by two G.E. plants from the 1940′s until they were banned in 1977. And there they’ve remained, as G.E. stared down Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, and the E.P.A. under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush–until December 2000, just days before the Supreme Court issued its decision in Bush v. Gore , when Clinton E.P.A. administrator Carol Browner recommended that G.E. be forced to dredge 100,000 pounds of the toxic contaminants, at a cost of $460 million.

“This river needs to be cleaned up,” she said at the time. And yet, Ms. Browner herself acknowledged that the recommendation was something of a Hail Mary pass. Her voice quavering, the soon-to-be lame duck said, “Look, this is 10 years of work. And I have to say, I would be very disappointed if any administration walked away from the volume of science–unprecedented–[and] the volume of work in this proposal.”

“Very disappointed” has come to be the environmentalists’ refrain as they’ve watched Mr. Bush back off from tougher standards on acid rain, global warming and arsenic levels in drinking water. Privately, some Republicans think that the Bushies–when they think about it at all–abhor the plan to dredge the Hudson, seeing it as a cave-in to alarmist environmentalists and based on bad science.

And G.E. has certainly given that wing of the Republican Party cover, spending between $10 million and $12 million upstate on an advertising campaign–an astounding amount in one of the nation’s tiniest media markets. The ads contain two arguments: There’s no proof that PCB’s are bad for you, and the river is cleaning itself.

The advertising campaign has certainly taken hold. In the small town of Fort Edward, N.Y., the location of one of the G.E. plants, townspeople have posted green-and-black “We oppose dredging” signs on their lawns; the signs are supplied by G.E. A sampling of public opinion in the Fort Edward Diner finds vocal opposition to dredging. “We grew up swimming in that river, and nothing’s the matter with us!” is a typical comment. To some locals, the dredging plan is all a plot by downstaters so they can fish in the Hudson while their poorer brethren upstate have to live through a “disruptive” dredging process.

Still, with the notable exception of Congressman John Sweeney, powerful New York Republicans, including Mr. Pataki, support the dredging plan.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, recently met with Ms. Whitman and said that he, too, remained optimistic. He was asked why. “I think the Clinton administration position was correct,” Mr. Spitzer said. “And the Bush administration’s failure [on environmental issues] is exacting a political cost. It may not be the science that motivates them; it may be the politics.”

Mr. Sweeney, who opposes dredging, said of the political controversy: “This is not really about my seat.” Indeed, it is not–his seat is safe. Yet Mr. Sweeney is not without influence in the Bush administration. He has bragged about organizing the disruption that led to the end of the recount in Miami-Dade County last November, and until recently his chief of staff was Brad Card, brother to White House chief of staff Andrew Card.

Still, it’s numbers that the Bush administration cares about, argued one Hudson Valley Republican. “If President Bush doesn’t support dredging, what does [Republican U.S. Representative] Sue Kelly do? What does [Representative] Ben Gilman do?” Ms. Kelly represents much of Westchester–exactly the kind of independent-minded, environmentally conscious voters that Mr. Bush seems to have teed off these first few months of his tenure. Mr. Gilman also has Hudson Valley constituents. There is also concern about the U.S. Senate: Some believe that Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee is poised to defect after one more anti-environmental edict from Mr. Bush.

The Whitman Factor

Bush administration officials are remaining tight-lipped, though as governor of New Jersey, Ms. Whitman supported the dredging. In a 1998 letter to the E.P.A., the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said that “the debate over whether it is wiser to remove PCB’s from the bottom of the Hudson or leave the PCB’s in place should not continue. It is clear to see that the only responsible course of action is to safely dredge the contaminated river bottom.”

Even President Bush, announcing U.S. support for the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty last April, said: “Concerns over the hazards of PCB’s, DDT and the other toxic chemicals covered by the agreement are based on solid scientific information. These pollutants are linked to developmental defects, cancer and other grave problems in humans and animals.”

Still, neither Mr. Sweeney nor Mr. Spitzer left their meetings with Ms. Whitman with any sense of where the E.P.A. was headed. (And even if Ms. Whitman had her own recommendations, as she did on carbon-dioxide emissions, it’s not clear that her advice would be followed.) Publicly, Ms. Whitman will only say that the E.P.A. is on track to make a decision whether to go forward on Aug. 17.

That offered some comfort to environmentalists, who had expected a delay. Now they have a different worry: that the decision will be watered down. “We just can’t see how George W. Bush, given his record, is going to be willing to embarrass G.E. that way,” said Riverkeeper’s Mr. Matthiessen. Despite their appeals, Ms. Whitman has not met with a coalition of environmentalists, fueling their worst fears.

But they have continued, undaunted. On June 26, Riverkeeper released a new report showing elevated levels of PCB’s in the blood of Hudson River anglers, as well as a billboard designed to keep the focus on the human-health effects of PCB’s during this crucial month before the Bush E.P.A. makes its decision.

The billboard shows PCB’s as neon-green blobs on the river bottom, in a striped bass, and encircling a human fetus in its mother’s belly.

“This is the last chance to get PCB’s out of the Hudson,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is Riverkeeper’s attorney. “If they do it now, the fish will be safe to eat two years after dredging is completed. Otherwise, it will be 100 years.”