Albany Times Union
Sunday, July 16, 2000
By Fred LeBrun
GE scraping the bottom on dredging
The world's most profitable corporation, coming off its most profitable quarter in history, is whining that it shouldn't be stuck with the bill for polluting the hell out of the Hudson River.
It's a wondrous display of bravado of such colossal proportions it deserves a short round of applause for its brassiness.
Not for a minute do I wish to be seen as discouraging General Electric from taking out those arresting and pricey full-page ads in newspapers across the state, including this one, ads that strongly discourage the dredging of the river. Even if they didn't pay my salary, I'd defend the company's right to state anything it wants in print, from a soapbox, from an airplane. It's the American way.
But the protected right of expression doesn't mean what the ads have to say isn't appalling, because it is. Not in the particulars, necessarily -- that is, with each specific ad -- but, rather, in the aggregate. General Electric is trying to buy public opinion. A private corporation is attempting to twist public policy in order to avoid the financial responsibility for a mess it created. Those ads are filled with unscientific half-truths and emotional appeals.
This, from the company that maintained for years that "science'' would bear out the company's position that the PCBs the company put in the river did not need extraordinary action for removal. That they weren't all that harmful to begin with and were naturally degrading, anyway.
With that strategy, GE did, in fact, manage to dodge the bill for years by delaying a plan of action from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Finally, the EPA did what it should have done decades before: the science. GE put out its own divergent and self-serving science, naturally, and screamed "peer review, peer review,'' to settle whose science should prevail. Well, folks, three tiers of peer review later, the EPA's science is still valid.
So now GE is going low road, with ads that, like all propaganda, break down into absurdity when scrutinized. For example: One ad shows the faces of six citizens who live along the upper Hudson, with a line underneath that reads, "Maybe the real experts on dredging are the people who live along the Hudson.''
By that ad's logic, maybe people who live along cemeteries are automatically forensic pathologists. Every one of these full-page ads can be logically dismembered, as the Sierra Club is pointing out in a pointed radio anti-ad campaign.
But don't underestimate the power of these ads. They will persuade some, particularly those who feel "the government'' is going to dump PCB dredgings in their back yard, which is truly absurd. Plain old fear-mongering. At the very least, these ads incite passions and further confuse an already murky issue, which I suspect is at the black heart of the General Electric strategy. The folks at GE aren't trying to persuade you or me; they're creating a cover of plausibility for their work in Washington, where this battle will really be won or lost.
Science has been a word badly abused by the issue of PCB dredging in the Hudson, and historically, the EPA is partly to blame. But come Dec. 31, the EPA's science and its recommended solution will be on the table.
Time and "science'' are closing in on GE. The real test of the public will comes when the EPA's determination is made, and when we see how resolutely it is accepted.
Particularly if a guy named Bush, who is viewed as pro-pro-pro business, is successful in November, something GE would dearly love. But don't expect to see that in one of GE's ads.