The Bush administration on Tuesday ordered PCBs dredged from the upper Hudson River, setting in motion one of the largest such cleanup operations in the nation's history.

The final plan includes performance standards for air quality and noise but not for PCBs suspended in the river water.

"We are going forward with this important cleanup," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said Tuesday.

General Electric Co., which dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river before the substance was banned by the federal government in 1977, bitterly opposes dredging the river bottom. The cleanup is expected to cost the company some $500 million. There was no immediate comment from a GE spokesman regarding Tuesday's announcement.

The final "record of decision" from the Environmental Protection Agency mirrors the draft plan the agency endorsed over the summer. In August, Whitman announced she would go along with the Clinton administration blueprint to dredge PCB hotspots in the river north of Albany.

Gov. George Pataki, environmentalists and elected Democrats had all lobbied against including performance standards in the plan saying they could delay the cleanup and make it susceptible to legal challenges.

GE had lobbied for performance standards, which would allow officials to gauge the effectiveness of the cleanup as the it progressed. While standards for air quality and noise were included in the final plan, EPA said standards to see whether PCBs were being resuspended in the river water as the dredging progressed would be developed with public input during the design stage.

Now work begins on engineering details of the plan to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment -- which would fill about 40 football fields 30 feet deep. That could take several years.

The EPA said it transmitted its decision to state officials, who now have 15 business days to review it before it is released officially.

The decision caps a quarter century of false starts and conflicting studies over what to do with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, buried in the river bottom.

PCBs have been linked to cancer in laboratory animals. The EPA classifies the oily substances as a probable carcinogen and says PCBs pose risks to wildlife and to people who eat fish from the Hudson.

In 1984, a 197-mile stretch of the river from Hudson Falls to the tip of lower Manhattan was placed on the federal Superfund cleanup list. But with PCB levels appearing to drop, the EPA decided not to order a cleanup and to see what happened.

PCB levels continued to slowly decrease but not quickly enough to suit the EPA and in 1991 the agency said it would reevaluate its decision.

A bitter battle has followed.

Environmentalists argued that the river would remain polluted until the PCBs were scooped out. GE insisted the river was cleansing itself and to stir up the sediments would only make the problem worse.

Upstate communities where the dredging would take place are among the most adamantly opposed, fearing the disruption lumbering dump trucks and huge dewatering plants will have on their quality of life. They also do not want to be left storing the contaminated mud in landfills.

GE spent millions of dollars on high-powered Washington lobbyists and an advertising blitz aimed at preventing dredging.

Still, the Clinton administration one year ago outlined a plan to dredge PCB pockets in the northern Hudson River. In the public comment period that followed, tens of thousands of opinions poured in. The huge response prompted the EPA to push back its final decision, initially scheduled for the spring. The decision was delayed again by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York

GE's options shrink now that the final decision is in. The federal Superfund law, under which the dredging is being ordered, is largely immune to lawsuits. GE has, however, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of the Superfund law itself.

If the company refuses to go along with the cleanup, the EPA can start the work on its own and charge GE up to triple the cost.

GE released PCBs from its capacitor plans in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls north of Albany. PCBs served as insulation and a coolant.