Making the Polluters Pay
By John Byrne Barry
On my flight to Mexico City, I tried to read a Spanish language newspaper. My Spanish wasn't good enough to understand much. But I was able to decipher the story headlined: "General Electric, a limpiar el r’o Hudson," with the kicker, "EPA Lo Deciderá." (That's "GE to Clean Up Hudson River; EPA Decides.")
I could manage a rudimentary translation because for years The Planet has been covering the Sierra Club's fight to force GE to dredge the PCBs it dumped in the Hudson River. The fight has also been characterized as a national test case of Superfund, which was designed to make polluters pay to clean up toxic sites. And we won.
The cleanup will cost GE half a billion dollars.
Now, just because a clean-water fight in upstate New York makes headlines in a Mexico City newspaper doesn't necessarily mean it's a huge victory, but it's a good indication of its importance.
Like last year's victory in Arizona, where a strong campaign by the Club and its allies shut down a pumice mine on the San Francisco Peaks, the Hudson campaign succeeded because it used every tool imaginable, from postcards and radio ads to canoes and fishing poles.
There were the annual "family fish-ins," in which people cast their lines but threw back their catch because fish in the Hudson are too contaminated to eat.
The campaign pressured the Environmental Protection Agency, which ordered the cleanup, but also targeted GE and made the company look bad for its attempts to avoid responsibility for its actions.
The message was simple and pulled right out of kindergarten class: "GE Clean Up Your Mess." And the message was heard not just at the EPA and newspaper offices in Mexico City, but at other Superfund sites as well.
GE spent tens of millions of dollars on a public relations campaign to derail the cleanup, but couldn't overcome the grassroots movement.
Thanks to all the Atlantic Chapter activists and field who helped make it happen, especially Roger Gray, Peter Sheehan, Jim Mays, Aaron Mair, Maureen Ferraro-Davis, John Stouffer, Chris Ballantyne and Baret Pinyoun.
The dredging won't actually begin until after a three-year design phase, says Pinyoun, so organizers are celebrating - but not relaxing.
"We popped open some champagne," she says, "but we drank it at our desks."
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