The Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed a Clinton administration proposal to dredge PCBs from the Hudson River but plans to implement the plan in stages, a spokesman for the agency said Wednesday.

The $460 million plan, one of the largest dredging operations ever, is opposed by General Electric Co., which would have to pay for most of the cleanup. The company issued a statement saying the dredging would do more harm than good.

GE discharged 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the northern Hudson River from its capacitor plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls until 1977, when the substance was banned by the federal government. Polychlorinated biphenyls have been linked to cancer in laboratory animals.

The company spent millions of dollars on a public relations blitz and lobbyists to defeat the plan. The company's chief executive, Jack Welch, personally lobbied Environmental Administrator Christie Whitman.

Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., was informed late Tuesday by EPA officials that Whitman was supporting the plan, said his spokesman, Kevin Madden.

But Whitman modified the Clinton administration plan so that it would be phased in with stops along the way to test to see how effective the dredging was in removing PCBs from the river, Madden said.

"The EPA and Administrator Whitman have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear on the people of the Upper Hudson River region," Sweeney, an opponent of the dredging, said late Tuesday.

The dredging would take place in Sweeney's district, where residents fear PCB waste will be stored.

EPA spokesman Chris Paulitz confirmed Sweeney's account of the plan Wednesday but refused to provide further details. The plan will not be made public officially until late September after officials in New York State have had a chance to review it

Gov. George Pataki, who had personally lobbied Whitman to go ahead with a major dredging plan, issued a statement Wednesday morning calling her decision "an important victory for a clean and healthy Hudson River."

But Pataki told Whitman it was important to work in conjunction with local leaders from the upper Hudson River in implementing the plan. Many of them have been highly vocal in their opposition to dredging.

He urged federal compensation to businesses along the river for economic losses and to communities for the loss of recreational opportunities.

The EPA in December announced a $460 million proposal to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river north of Albany.

GE's statement Wednesday called the dredging decision a loss for the people of the area. "It appears that neither sound science nor the voices of these residents played a part in the EPA's decision.

"GE has invested $200 million in Hudson River research and restoration projects over the past 20 years and has met every commitment made to state and federal regulators. This had led to remarkable improvement in the river during this period," the company said.

"GE calls on the EPA to make public its draft decision so that GE, local river residents and all impacted parties can review the plan and participate in the process."