Soaking the Taxpayers

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday that it has agreed to let General Electric delay the dredging of the Hudson River -- which the agency had ordered several years ago in order to further lower the trace levels there of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The delay would allow the company to complete work on a "sediment processing facility" by 2007.

Environmentalists were characteristically outraged. "We think this is a big mistake,'' said Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. Besides accusing GE of foot-dragging, Moore is also enraged because he deems the delay proof that the EPA is a pawn of GE.

But exactly who is a pawn of whom here, in the Hudson River PCBs fiasco?

Prior to 1977 (when PCBs were banned by the government), GE legally disposed of PCBs by releasing residue from its processing and manufacturing of insulation material into the Hudson. Because PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory rodents, the EPA, under pressure from environmental groups, declared that PCBs in the river might pose a cancer risk to people who swam in the river or ate fish from it.

Actually, the reason behind the EPA's order to GE to remove even traces of PCB from the river are themselves very murky. A few years back, I called the EPA and asked, "What is the compelling factor that made EPA order GE to spend an estimated one billion dollars to undertake the removal of PCBs from the river?" The EPA spokesman first told me that they wanted the PCBs removed because "they cause cancer." She omitted the stipulation " in rats." When I told her that the National Cancer Institute said that exposure to PCBs in the Hudson did not contribute to the toll of human cancer, the EPA spokesperson demurred, saying the EPA was also "concerned about the health of the river."

Since ACSH does not have any "river-ologists" on its Advisory Board, we could not enter into dialogue on exactly what the ideal state of "river health" was supposed to be.

The EPA's (tax-payer funded) costs for all this are unknown, but given that the Agency has been working on the Hudson River project for more than ten years, they are surely in the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. GE, as mentioned, will spend nearly a billion dollars -- and, of course, will have to pass these costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices on their products.

What will the consumer get for these enormous hidden costs passed along in higher taxes and inflated purchase prices? Absolutely nothing. No life will be saved. No illness will be prevented. Why? Because trace levels of PCBs do not pose a threat -- of cancer or any other disease -- to human health.

The Hudson River "PCB project" is a sham -- the perfect example of a government mandate involving extraordinary costs but accomplishing nothing. Where is the outrage?

Today I passed a huge New York City construction project where a few workers had been injured by the earth-moving machinery in place to construct a new building. It occurred to me that while no one -- not one person -- ever died or was injured because of trace levels of PCB in the Hudson River, some workers on the PCB removal project, with all its heavy machinery and intense labor, will indeed die or suffer serious work-related injuries.