When Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced last week that New York State would finally take GE to court for polluting the Hudson with toxic PCB’s, environmentalists could barely contain their jubilation. ‘So many activists have been working on this for so many years. Some have moved on to other careers, but had to be there,’ says Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York public Interest Research Group. “It was so exciting.”
Not, apparently, for George Pataki. The governor’s aides orchestrated a blistering, politically motivated critique of the suit by Spitzer, who’s spent the last year showing up the purportedly green Pataki on environmental issues. “To believe that the lawsuit by the attorney general will mean quicker remediation of the river is simply a mistake,” read the statement from John P. Cahill, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Cahill’s condemnation was almost as fierce as GE’s, which accused Spitzer of “politics, pure and simple.” The lead GE spokesperson was Gary Sheffer—who, until the summer, had been the lead spokesperson at Cahill’s DEC. (Indeed, Spitzer’s office has since declared that Sheffer’s job switch merits a review by the state ethics commission.)
“It was shocking. I have never seen anything like that,” says Val Washington, executive director of Environmental Advocates, speaking of Pataki’s public scolding of Spitzer. NYPIRG’s Haight says Spitzer’s office was “blindsided by that vicious attack.”
“I really can’t understand how the commissioner of the DEC could not be happy at more pressure being brought to bear on GE,” adds John Stouffer, legislative director for the Sierra Club’s Atlantic chapter.
Ever since Spitzer took office in January, Pataki and the AG have played a fairly genial game of environmental leapfrog—a sport that delights activists, many of whom have been quietly frustrated with the Pataki administration for years. In September, for example, the Democratic AG filed a bold suit targeting air pollution from other states’ power plants; in October, taking up a cause he’d ignored only months before, the Republican governor announced tougher emissions regulations for New York power plants.
“What Spitzer does is light a fire under Pataki,” says Richard Brodsky of Westchester, chair of the state assembly’s environmental conservation committee. Over the last five years, Brodsky says, Pataki’s record “on land use was fine, while his record on toxic and any sort of corporate pollution was awful.”
Pataki has special reason to be defensive when it comes to GE, whose resistance to cleaning up PCBs released from two Hudson River plants has infuriated environmentalists for decades. In 1996, for example, Pataki’s then DEC commissioner, Michael Zagata, excused GE from pollution penalties at its Waterford plant after GE agreed to spend $1.5 million on various “environmental benefit programs,” including building a boat launch near Zagata’s upstate home.
Spitzer, on the other hand, made pursuit of GE one of the cornerstones of his campaign. As his lawyers developed their case, they met regularly with the governor’s office, DEC, and other agencies.
On Friday, November 12, Spitzer sent word that his GE press conference would take place on Monday, November 15. On Saturday—a most unusual day for a press release—the DEC announced it would require that GE spend $28.4 million to dig up, treat, and remove PCBs from its plant in Hudson Falls, New York.
But that wasn’t all. Lawsuits have a public face, and Spitzer wanted key environmental groups on his side. His office approached Scenic Hudson, a Poughkeepsie-based leader of the anti-PCB fight, and the group quickly contacted other river advocates.
Meanwhile, sources say, officials from the DEC and the governor’s office were making calls oftheir own, pressuring environmentalists to remainneutral. Scenic Hudson delivered a statement “commending” the governor and DEC for their actions at Hudson Falls, but refused to put a halt to the statement “applauding” Spitzer. (In the past, says Brodsky, “the Pataki people have been extra punitive to people who do not march to their political tune, so a lot of the environmental groups shucked and jived on some major stuff.”)
In the end, seven groups signed the press release endorsing the Spitzer lawsuit, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Clearwater. One notable absence was the Riverkeeper, led by John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., neither of whom returned calls.
The Spitzer suit seeks to recover costs that could exceed $10 million. (GE reported profits of $9.3 billion last year.) It demands that GE pick up the increased expense of dredging toxic wastes from the Champlain Canal. Spitzer says cities along the Hudson might use the same strategy. It could even apply to the port of New York, where the cost of disposing of sediments polluted with an array of contaminants adds about $70 million to the bill for navigational dredging each year.
Days before the Spitzer announcement, another of Pataki’s archrivals, Rudy Giuliani, informed the Albany Times Union that he believes “dredging is necessary” to get rid of PCBs in the Hudson.
Pataki has avoided taking a stand on dredging. He says that decision should be left up to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, whose study of the question has already dragged on for nearly 10 years—thanks largely, environmentalists say, to endless delaying tactics and pressure from GE.
The DEC’s Cahill charged that Spitzer’s suit might further delay the EPA’s preliminary report, which is now due out late next year. He quoted an unnamed EPA spokeswoman who said: “It would be a damn shame to have an impact when we’re so close. The attorney general has to be aware of that.”
Doug Tomchuk, the EPA study’s project manager, says Spitzer’s office did consult with the EPA before settling on its action. Tomchuk raised his fears about getting dragged into the legal action. But, he says, “I don’t think it does anything for us in particular. Hopefully it shouldn’t impact us.”