• U.S.

Here Comes The Dredge

5 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Love doesn’t take you far in politics, but until last Wednesday, Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, might not have known it. “I love George W. Bush,” Welch said during the presidential campaign. Bush loved Welch back, considering him for a Cabinet spot and earlier this summer dispatching members of his Administration to Brussels to lobby the European Union on behalf of Welch’s proposed–and ultimately rejected–merger with Honeywell.

But the political dream couple hit the rocks last week when the Environmental Protection Agency ordered GE to begin a much debated dredging of the Hudson River for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), probable carcinogens whose removal will cost GE stockholders $460 million. For 20 years, GE, which dumped the toxins in the river in the first place, had ferociously fought the removal plan, arguing–with the help of up to $60 million worth of ads and political contributions–that doing nothing was the best course. Environmentalists–starved for a flicker of green from the White House–took the order as a sign that President Bush was rethinking his hard line on some of their most cherished issues.

Hardly, it turns out. The Hudson River announcement appears to have been the outcome of a political equation that added wobbly poll numbers, a New York Governor’s bid for re-election and even a failed candidate for the post of ambassador to Italy–to come up with zero for GE.

GE has had an uneasy relationship with the Hudson since the 1940s, when it began dumping PCBs–a practice it continued until 1977, when the chemical was banned. Since then, the river has rebounded, with PCB levels in fish falling 90%. Still, any PCBs can be dangerous, and many people–including EPA chief and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and New York Governor George Pataki–have argued for dredging a 40-mile stretch of the river north of Albany and sending GE the bill.

When Whitman was picked to head the EPA, the prospects for this proposal seemed to brighten. But a series of Administration moves that alarmed moderates and sandbagged Whitman–including an about-face on pollution standards and withdrawal from the Kyoto global warming accord–suggested otherwise.

With Bill Clinton having issued a dredging plan last December, however, the newly arrived Bushies had to address the matter in some way. Lawmakers from New York asked for a meeting with Whitman, and though she ultimately sat down with them in July, she made them wait five months–not a good sign. Two weeks ago, EPA floated a proposal that would mandate dredging but scale down the scope of the work. For GE, which met with Whitman sometime before that, the plan was a valentine. “GE thought it had a deal,” says an industry lobbyist.

But if any deal existed, it quickly foundered. On July 24, Pataki phoned Whitman and spoke to her like the cross-river colleagues they previously were. “He made it clear that we need to go forward in a full and comprehensive cleanup,” says Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon. He might have also made it clear that he wants to be re-elected next year, and that he has a home along the river, in Garrison, N.Y. It did not help Pataki’s mood that he felt slighted after lobbying Bush for a friend to be chosen for the ambassadorial posting in Rome, only to be brushed off.

Meanwhile, Bush was satisfying his Republican shock troops in the West, and antagonizing greens, with this week’s House approval of his plan to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. So there was little cost in offering a nod to environmentalists in the East, and what more conspicuous a target than Welch, who had enjoyed the Administration’s largesse this summer and will soon retire anyway. “It’s something you can give Pataki at the same time you’re standing up to one of the largest companies in the world [and] striking a blow for the environment,” says a top Republican consultant. “What am I missing?”

Perhaps the Hudson. If the dredging announced last week goes ahead–no sure thing, since the program will proceed in stages and can be shut down if it doesn’t yield the desired results–will the river get better? Dredging even a small patch of riverbed can be a messy job, one that could merely stir up buried PCBs. Proponents argue that the remaining PCBs in the river have to go, and that when they do, the risk of cancer they carry will vanish with them. The EPA’s research is on the side of the greens, but only when the dredging starts will the true verdict start to flow in. If the science has yet to speak, however, the politicians already have.

–With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington and Unmesh Kher/New York

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com