Spitzer faults officials for delaying decisive action on GE, PCBs

By John Caher and James M. Odato
Copyright 1998 The Times Union (Albany, NY)
September 4, 1998

Attorney general hopeful sketches out his own plan for resolution

Albany Attorney general candidate Eliot Spitzer said Thursday that buck-passing by federal and state officials and "horrendous government lawyering" have delayed for decades a resolution of the question of whether General Electric is to blame for PCBs contamination of the Hudson River.

Spitzer, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, told the Times Union editorial board that he met with GE officials last week and was assured the firm could complete a technical study within eight weeks to move the issue to resolution.

At the meeting and in a campaign stop at the Capitol, Spitzer said if he were attorney general, he'd give the company four months to conclude its work, then press a lawsuit if it failed to meet the deadline. He also said he'd require GE to pay New York back millions of dollars the Stamford, Conn.-based company has received in state tax breaks and grants.

"I met with GE last Friday," Spitzer said. "I cross-examined the people they had there. We didn't come to any conclusions, of course, but . . . I got them to essentially admit it would take eight weeks to do the peer review that they want done of the EPA study."

EPA has not yet decided if GE is liable for cleanup, and GE objects to the way the agency performed tests to determine that issue. However, the company can complete its own analysis within two months, Spitzer said.

The state has agreed with EPA's science and sent formal comments to the agency Monday, said Gary Sheffer, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Conservation. He said GE arrived Tuesday at DEC headquarters to present its argument of EPA's faulty work and DEC is open to amending its comments.

Sheffer added the state does not have standing in the Hudson River sediment case because that is a federal Superfund site.

Further, he said, Gov. George Pataki has written twice to EPA expressing frustration at the slow pace of resolving the sediment cleanup and the state is preparing a lawsuit to make those responsible for the pollution pay for damaging natural resources.

Spitzer said the state essentially signed off on the matter and made a decision to allow the federal government to take the lead. The candidate said New York should retake control and get the Hudson River cleaned in a reasonable period of time.

"I don't fault GE for this," Spitzer said. "They are doing precisely what they want to be doing, which is to drag this out. I have been a lawyer on behalf of companies with administrative problems. You always try to delay it. Why? Maybe the assistant who is handling the case will get married, will go off, will find another job and the case will be handed to somebody else and it will take another two years. The people I fault are the government lawyers who haven't pursued the issue with sufficient assiduousness, with inadequate aggressiveness in moving the ball forward."

Spitzer admits he does not know whether GE's methodology is scientifically superior. He said that with a few good lawyers and some expert witnesses, he could force GE to clean up the Hudson River if litigation is necessary. The Democrat said Attorney General Dennis Vacco had ousted, for political reasons, many of the state's top environmental lawyers. Vacco's office did not return a call seeking comment.

Spitzer said he would give GE four months to do further tests to find out the effects of concentrations of PCBs -- hot spots -- in the river. The EPA, which announced findings that GE disputes, says the pollutants, which are suspected to cause cancer in humans, are leaching into the river.

"I am convinced there is liability on GE's part," Spitzer said. "It is clear to me that GE has been winning the delay game."

GE spokesman David Warshaw confirmed the meeting and said it was called by GE because of Spitzer's ad campaign.

GE, he said, has spent $ 150 million to clean up PCBs in the region of its Hudson Falls plant and the work has resulted in "significant improvements, without dredging."

"Our focus on . . . controlling sources of PCBs, which allows significant natural recovery to occur . . . is the best option, and one we will continue to pursue," he said.

Vacco's staff has repeatedly said the attorney general has a strong record on environmental issues.

"We haven't heard Mr. Vacco say anything about this issue in the last two years," said Cara Lee, environmental director for Scenic Hudson, a coalition working to improve the river's quality. "That's disappointing."

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