Hudson Dredge Order Catches Both Pro and Con Forces by Surprise

Sometime around 8 p.m. on Tuesday, July 31, upstate New York Congressman John Sweeney got a phone call from Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was, said Mr. Sweeney’s spokesman, Kevin Madden, an 11th-hour heads-up about a story about to break in The New York Times the next day.

The E.P.A. had sent up a draft order, saying the General Electric Company had to spend half a billion dollars to dredge the Hudson River of hazardous PCB’s. It was a plan that G.E.–and Congressman Sweeney–had vehemently opposed.

“And contained in that order was a full endorsement of the E.P.A. plan that was originally crafted under Carol Browner in the Clinton administration,” Mr. Madden complained the next day.

Up to that very moment, Mr. Madden said, the Congressman’s office, had been discussing a vastly scaled-back proposal with the E.P.A. In fact, the widespread impression among both pro-dredging and anti-dredging forces alike in the days leading up to the Aug. 1 announcement was that the ambitious clean-up of the Hudson River ordered in the waning days of the Clinton administration was about to be radically diminished under the pro-business agenda of George W. Bush.

The congressman wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by the decision of E.P.A. Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to issue the draft order for the full project. Darren Dopp, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s communications director, said he received a call after 10 p.m. from his counterpart in Governor Pataki’s office, inquiring about what he had heard. He had heard nothing.

But most surprised was a group of environmentalists who had just days earlier met with Ms. Whitman in her ornate conference room just blocks from the White House. The environmentalists had been seeking such a meeting, they said, since January.

About three-quarters into the meeting, Ms. Whitman’s chief of staff, Eileen McGinnis, spoke up. “We have sat around this table half a dozen times with people from upriver communities,” Ms. McGinnis said, according to six sources who were present. The upstaters had expressed grave doubts about dredging. “Is anyone here from upriver?”

The question was met with stony silence–partly because the group realized it had erred by failing to bring along anyone from the Upper Hudson River Valley, reinforcing the perception that dredging is an upriver-versus-downriver dispute.

But the group was also silent for another reason. The E.P.A. had admitted to speaking to dredging opponents six times while a decision was being made, yet only once–now–with the environmentalists

To the enviros, these six meetings, which had never before been disclosed, were proof of the Bush administration’s favoritism towards pro-industry lobbyists. When they left their meeting, the environmentalists–12 of them, from Scenic Hudson, Riverkeep, Environmental Advocates, NYPIRG, Hudson Sloop Clearwater, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility–were all but certain they had lost.

Certainly, G.E. had done everything within the power of its vast and influential resources to affect the outcome in their favor. For months, upriver residents had been subjected to an unprecedented G.E.-funded advertising campaign. (The enviros had also run some ads, but their spending had been in the thousands, not the millions.) The G.E. ads argued that dredging would economic disruption and harmful resuspension of the PCB’s, and that the Clinton E.P.A. proposal was radical and untested.

Those were the very arguments the upriver groups had brought to the E.P.A., and the very ones Mrs. Whitman had pitched back to the greenies at their July 26 meeting..

The environmentalists knew that Ms. Whitman had met with Mr. Sweeney, of upstate Halfmoon, back in May. Ms. Whitman would admit in the July 27 Washington Post that General Electric chief executive Jack Welch also had a chance to bend her ear, and that she’d met with company officials.

Meanwhile, pro-dredging members of Congress had to wait until late July for their sit-down with the E.P.A.–and that only occurred after a planned July 12 meeting was canceled, reporters were notified and the White House, apparently embarrassed, intervened.

“I had been trying to schedule a meeting with her since she was appointed,” said Democratic Representative Maurice Hinchey, who represents a large swath of the lower Hudson Valley and is a leader of the pro-dredging faction.

Ms. Whitman did meet with two pro-dredging representatives early on–Democratic Assemblymen Richard Brodsky of Westchester County and John McEneny of Albany–but only to discuss the specific issue of a possible E.P.A. television response to G.E.’s massive anti-dredging ad campaign.(No E.P.A. ads were ever placed.)

Even Governor Pataki, a dredging supporter and fellow Republican, did not lobby Ms. Whitman until July 24–and then by phone. Mr. Pataki later told reporters he supported the full dredging plan.

Democratic Congressional staff members who were supporters of the dredging plan were so concerned about the frequent contact between the E.P.A. and the anti-dredging forces that they invoked a provision of the federal Superfund law, which requires the E.P.A. to keep a public file of all meetings it holds on an issue after the required public-comment period ends. But in the dredging case, no such file has been maintained. Finally, after two weeks of effort, Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was given records of four meetings in May. But the records don’t mention the meeting with G.E. officials, or all the visits by the anti-dredging groups. An E.P.A. spokesman, Chris Paulitz, could not explain why the records did not match the acknowledged meetings.

Of the meetings held, Representative Sweeney had a hand in arranging many of them. Though only in his second term, Mr. Sweeney has quickly risen in the Republican Party, cementing his power position by organizing the demonstration that halted the recount of presidential votes in Miami-Dade County last December–a protest that proved to be a turning point in the post-election fight.

It was Mr. Sweeney, said Merrilyn Pulver, the town supervisor of upstate Fort Edward and a dredging opponent, who helped set up the E.P.A. meetings. Though the group didn’t meet with Ms. Whitman herself, Ms. Pulver was unconcerned. “I know the Congressman is working closely with [Ms. McGinnis], so we felt quite confident our message was heard.”

Mr. Sweeney’s spokesman, Mr. Madden, confirmed that Mr. Sweeney had been in close contact with Ms. Whitman and the E.P.A., speaking with her several times on the phone after their May meeting. “And there is daily contact on a senior staff level,² Mr. Madden said, just a day before Ms. Whitman issued the full dredging order.

There was also contact with the White House. Mr. Madden said Mr. Sweeney speaks frequently with White House chief of staff Andrew Card (the brother of Mr. Sweeney’s own former chief of staff), though not, Mr. Madden said, about dredging. Still, he had added, “we¹re plenty sure the White House knows our position.”

By contrast, Governor Pataki–dredging’s most prominent Republican proponent–has not made his views known to the White House. “We’ve been making our case to the E.P.A.,” said spokesman Mike McKeon.

General Electric did have Mr. Bush’s ear, though. Mr. Welch sat next to Mr. Bush at his January business summit, though the White House would not comment on whether they had discussed PCB’s. Mr. Welch even tried to persuade the pro-dredgers, speaking with Governor Pataki, Senator Charles Schumer and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, among others.

“G.E. has a tremendous amount of schwack with the White House,” said one high-level Republican political consultant, “and Mr. Welch made this an issue personally, which is extremely unusual.”

Mr. Welch’s powers of persuasion–and business acumen–are well known, making him a modern-day capitalist icon with a fat $7 million book contract to prove it. “He can look you in the eye, and you hear him out and think he has the most reasonable position in the world,” said a Republican official who has been lobbied by Mr. Welch. “Until you check the facts and you see it was all lies.”

“There is no stronger advocate for the company,” added Mr. Dopp, Mr. Spitzer’s spokesman. “He has real style. He’s graceful in person but vehement, and he really believes this stuff. Would he drink a glass of PCB’s? It was pretty clear that he would.”

General Electric did not return several calls for comment.

Even so, G.E. didn’t rely on Mr. Welch’s prodigious powers of persuasion. In Washington, in 1999 (the last year for which data are available), the company had 96 lobbyists on retainer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They include former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former Upper Hudson Valley Republican Representative Gerald Solomon (who was referred to as “the Congressman from G.E.”).

Mr. Solomon spoke to a reporter for a half-hour about why dredging is bad, but downplayed his role, insisting that he hadn’t lobbied on dredging and that his $120,000-a-year retainer is “only 2 percent of my income.”

In 2000, as the E.P.A. was putting together its final proposal, G.E. spent $16.02 million on lobbying, more than double the $7.9 million it spent in 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2000, it was the third-most-generous lobbying spender, behind only the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Medical Association. Part of the effort apparently went toward G.E.’s attempt to merge with Honeywell, said the center’s Bill Shingleton. But he noted that AOL and Time Warner’s lobbying expenses jumped only about 10 percent before their merger. And even Microsoft, under threat of a government-imposed breakup, spent $6.4 million in 2000, compared to $4.9 million in 1999.

In Albany, G.E.’s lobbyists include James Featherstonhaugh, one of the most influential Republicans in Albany. In 2000, his firm was paid $150,000 by G.E.

And even the New York City Council was courted by G.E. As the Council, in April, was preparing to pass a pro-dredging resolution, NBC President Robert C. Wright was dispatched to lobby members. Council members described the meeting as “very unusual.” Said A. Gifford Miller of Manhattan’s East Side at the time, “As a City Council member, it’s not often the president of a major network comes to see you.”

But G.E. was most diligent at the grassroots. The company admits to spending $10 million to $12 million in anti-dredging advertising, though environmentalists say it’s many times more than that. With its radio and TV ads saturating the Hudson Valley, its full-page ads supplementing newspaper income and a half-hour infomercial running during prime time, it has persuaded many upriver residents that dredging will bring disruption, noise, traffic–and won’t do the job.

Broadcast ads also have run in Washington, D.C., and advertisements have appeared on The New York Times editorial page and in Roll Call.

The environmentalists have run their own ads, but fewer. The group Citizens to Cleanup G.E., a Ralph Nader offshoot, bought three New York Times editorial-page advertisements.

Local groups who are opposed to dredging insist they are completely independent. “You know what General Electric does and what we do are entirely separate,” said Ms. Pulver, the Fort Edward town supervisor. “Our interests are mutual in that we both see the river as being cleaner than it’s ever been, but we do our own thing.”

Still, the green-and-black anti-dredging signs that dot lawns along the Upper Hudson were supplied by G.E. and available on its Web site. Signs for some demonstrations have even contained the lettering “paid for by the General Electric Company.”

The company also freely disseminated data culled from its own $200 million in research, in a campaign-style press-rebuttal operation that responded to environmentalists’ claims.

But even with all this, G.E. lost, though it continued its resistance to the very end. At the 11th hour, both Republicans and Democrats said, the White House caught on that it could not sustain another environmental loss, given the President’s recent European trip and the administration’s position, alone among the major nations, to walk away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. In Congress, Republican moderates embarrassed Mr. Bush by voting to restore Clinton-era regulations on arsenic in drinking water.

Soon after, Mrs. Whitman was summoned to the White House, New York officials said. (Neither the E.P.A. nor the White House would confirm the meeting.)

“The President needed to show that he was prepared to take a strong pro-environmental position on something and do it soon because seen as reflexively anti-environment is not a good place to be,” said Kieran Mahoney, Governor Pataki’s consultant, who, like most observers, was taken completely by surprise by the outcome of the issue.

In the end, something proved more powerful than Jack Welch and all the clout he could muster: Votes in the center of the spectrum. Votes that appeared to be slipping away.