For 30 years, General Electric resisted calls to remove the toxic substances it had dumped into New York’s Hudson River over several decades. Now that the process is well under way, the company is striking back at the state by shutting its cleaned-up plant along the river and moving some 200 jobs to Florida. The workers slated to be laid off feel that they are now being dumped.
The site of the dispute is Fort Edward (about 200 miles north of New York City), where from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s GE produced electric capacitors using insulating material containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Vast quantities of PCB-contaminated waste ended up in the river’s waters and riverbed.
By the 1970s PCBs were recognized to be a human carcinogen and their manufacture was banned in the United States. In 1975 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered GE to cease its PCB dumping and negotiated a path-breaking settlement under which the company would help pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution that had closed the river to commercial fishing and become a national symbol of corporate irresponsibility.
As the projected cost of the clean-up escalated, GE resisted dredging the river’s sediment, which was estimated to contain more than 130 metric tons of PCBs, and instead proposed dubious alternatives such as using bacteria to try to break down the toxic wastes. The company continued this obstruction for years, even after the EPA ordered it in 2001 to pay an estimated $460 million to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment. The legal battle finally ended in 2005, but it took until 2009 for GE to actually begin the dredging. The process is now in its fifth year.
The workers at the Fort Edward plant may not be around to celebrate the completion of the clean-up. A few weeks ago, GE announced that it planned to close the plant and move the operation to Clearwater, Florida. The Fort Edward workers have been represented by the United Electrical (UE) union for the past 70 years, while the Clearwater plant—as you might expect—is non-union.
The Fort Edward move is just the latest of a long series of actions by GE that have weakened the economy of upstate New York. The city of Schenectady, where Thomas Edison moved his electrical equipment operation in 1886, has alone lost tens of thousands of jobs through waves of GE downsizing.
GE also seems to feel no sense of obligation in connection with the economic development subsidies it has received from state and local government agencies in New York. The biggest giveaways have come downstate. In 1987, a year after it was acquired by GE, NBC pressured New York City to give it $98 million in tax breaks under the threat of moving its operations to New Jersey. In 1999 investment house Kidder Peabody, then owned by GE, got its own $31 million package to stay in the city.
There have also been subsidies upstate. For example, in 2009 GE got a $5 million grant and a $2 million tax abatement for its operations in Schenectady. The company’s research center in Niskayuna, New York has received millions of dollars in local tax breaks.
When GE has not received enough subsidies for its satisfaction, the company sometimes tries to reduce its local tax bills by challenging the assessed value of its property. In 2002, for example, it sued to get the value of its turbine plant in Rotterdam, New York reduced from $159 million to $41 million. A compromise ruling gave GE some of what it wanted and forced the town to reimburse the company about $6 million. Not satisfied, the company later brought a new challenge and got the town to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal.
And, of course, GE is notorious for its dodging in other states and at the federal level, where it also gets subsidized through agencies such as the Export-Import Bank and got TARP-related assistance for its GE Capital unit.
Members of UE Local 332 are vowing to fight the plant shutdown, but they are up against a company that has shown it is willing to go to great lengths to get its way on environmental, labor and tax issues.