Final Countdown at EPA

Lame-duck EPA administrator Carol Browner just announced her plan to clean the Hudson River — by polluting it. New York residents are lucky Browner's plan won't survive the litigation that's almost certain to follow. 

The rest of us are lucky that this is one of the last acts of a demagogic bureaucrat who abused her office and politicized the EPA like no prior administrator. 

Browner proposed that the General Electric Company dredge polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson north of Albany at an estimated cost of $490 million. 

PCBs are chemicals once widely used as hydraulic and insulating fluids. GE was allowed by permit to discharge PCBs into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977. Over the years, the PCBs were buried and insulated from the water by layers of silt. 

Browner wants GE to dredge the river bottom in a quixotic effort to remove the PCBs. Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that stirring up the bottom will only "pollute" the Hudson anew. 

It's a good thing that PCBs aren't as hazardous as once thought, despite Browner ranting at the press conference for the proposal, "We know that PCBs are not only carcinogens, but they can also harm the immune systems, the nervous systems and the reproductive systems of both humans and animals." 

In 1975, researcher Renate Kimbrough reported rats fed high doses of PCBs had higher rates of liver cancer. Earlier studies reported PCBs accumulated up the wildlife food chain. Panic ensued and PCBs were banned by federal law in 1976. 

But in 1999, Kimbrough pulled the plug on the cancer alarm. She reported that workers with heavy and long-term exposures to PCBs — even those most highly-exposed — did not have greater cancer death rates than workers not exposed. 

As it turns out, poisoning laboratory rats isn't a good tool for predicting how much lower, real-life chemical exposures affect people. 

As to the potential for PCBs to disrupt immune, nervous and reproductive systems hormonal processes, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1999 that scientific evidence is inadequate to suggest that low doses of chemicals typically found in the environment, including PCBs, pose any health risk. 

Once again, it's also no surprise that animals administered high doses of chemicals develop all sorts of ill-effects; they've essentially been poisoned. 

It's certainly true that PCBs persist in the environment. But time, nature and $200 million worth of GE cleanup actions already have reduced PCB levels in water and fish by 90 percent over the last 20 years. 

Natural sedimentation has made dredging unnecessary. As time passes, PCB levels will decline even more — without harming human health or the environment. 

EPA's own computer model of the Hudson and prior dredging projects indicate that the EPA plan won't make things better. 

PCBs in Wisconsin's Fox River were 12 times higher downstream than upstream during a recent dredging project. At a dredging project on New York's Grasse River, PCBs in fish increased 20 to 50 times during dredging and remained elevated for several years after dredging, according to a GE report. 

Many Hudson Valley communities object to the EPA's plans to disturb slumbering PCB sediments. 

So why force GE to spend $490 million on a plan that can only make matters worse? 

GE has been in the gun-sights of extreme environmentalists for 20 years. The outgoing Browner perhaps represents a last chance to "stick it" to GE. She's only too happy to oblige. Relentless partisan attack has been Browner's style during her eight-year tenure at the EPA. 

In 1998 Browner traveled to Albany to respond to what she claimed was a concerted effort by GE to spread misleading information about PCBs. In unusual testimony before the Environmental Conservation Committee of the New York State Assembly, Browner attacked GE chairman Jack Welch for trying to assuage irrational fears about PCBs causing cancer. 

Most disturbingly she bad-mouths efforts to bring science and benefit-cost analysis to the EPA decision-making process as Republican attempts to roll back protection of the public health and environment for the benefit of "polluters." 

While focusing on attacking her opponents, Browner allowed the agency to be grossly mismanaged, including: 


  • EPA employees were criminally charged for falsifying evidence in litigation and doctoring laboratory results.


  • The EPA lost two-thirds of its litigation during Browner's tenure.


  • The agency was ordered to pay damages to whistle-blowers it retaliated against.


  • The FBI had to step in to prevent the agency from making available on the Internet information terrorists could use to sabotage chemical facilities.


  • The EPA was reined-in from making available on the Internet confidential business information that would have facilitated economic espionage.


  • At a congressional hearing about racism at the EPA, Browner was accused of running the agency like a plantation.

Surviving and even thriving in the "anything goes" Clinton-era, Browner's audacity and aggressiveness has intimidated many on Capitol Hill. The Hudson River proposal is just the latest — and hopefully final — example of her hardball tactics.

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of