BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Having access to the media gives you power. Having access to power gives you power too. General Electric has access to both. Currently the company is putting its high voltage public relations machine to work in a protracted battle with the Environmental Protection Agency. GE is spending millions of dollars in upstate New York to persuade the locals that toxic waste in the Hudson River doesn't need to be cleaned up. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio reports.
BRIAN MANN: Stand on the bank if the Hudson River and you'd never know that this is America's largest Superfund site. On the far shore wood ducks move in a line in the shade of budding trees. But just under the surface lie more than a million pounds of polychlorinated bi-phenols, a toxic chemical poured into the river by General Electric decades ago. Last fall the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a massive dredging operation to remove polluted sediment. The cleanup, one of the biggest in U.S. history, would be paid for by GE, facing a price tag of half a billion dollars. The company responded with an aggressive PR campaign aimed at killing the plan.
MAN: These wonderful moments on one of the richest rivers on earth could be interrupted for the next 20 years if the EPA orders the Hudson dredged. That's right. Removing millions of tons of sediment could take 20 years, and there's no guarantee dredging will work.
BRIAN MANN: Ads and infomercials like this one have aired in heavy rotation on dozens of TV and radio stations. GE launched a sophisticated web site and plastered its anti-dredging message on billboards and the sides of buses. GE's television network, NBC, has offered little national coverage of the Hudson cleanup. Critics say the last news story aired some 3 years ago, but pro-environment groups concede that coverage on all the major networks has been light. Still, they were outraged this spring when the president of NBC lobbied government leaders in New York City, urging them to oppose the cleanup. Critics of GE's media blitz say the company may have spent as much as 60 million dollars. The company puts the figure at 10 to 15 million dollars. GE's management has declined to open its books to shareholders who wanted to know the exact cost of the campaign. GE spokesman Steve Ramsay.
STEVE RAMSAY: That's information that we just generally don't share with the public. We don't think that that's the issue. The issue here should be what's the right remedy for the Hudson River?
BRIAN MANN: The right remedy, Ramsay says, is to leave the PCBs right where they are. According to GE's scientists the sludge is being contained naturally; buried under layers of river sediment. The company's researchers also dispute government claims that the compound causes cancer.
DR. DAVID CARPENTER: In my judgment there is definitely a, a risk to humans from the PCBs that are in the river.
BRIAN MANN: Dr. David Carpenter is a researcher at the University of Albany who studied the health effects of PCBs for 15 years. He says dozens of studies have suggested that PCBs cause cancer and a long list of other diseases, but many residents of Hudson Falls simply don't believe the research.
DR. DAVID CARPENTER: A lot of the distrust has been fed by the General Electric attempts, and blatant attempts, to influence the outcome by casting doubt on the objectivity, the credibility of EPA. [CAR HORN]
BRIAN MANN: Many locals here have also rejected the EPA's cleanup plan. John Mattison worked at General Electric's factory just across the street for 35 years, much of the time handling PCB-laden oils.
J0HN MATTISON: I personally feel a lot of people like to talk. They don't, they don't understand what they're talking about.
BRIAN MANN: What would it take to convince you that there was a health risk Here?
J0HN MATTISON: Nobody's going to convince me, cause I know better. I know it's a pack of lies.
BRIAN MANN: More than 50 towns and villages along the upper Hudson passed resolutions opposing the cleanup. There are lawn signs everywhere paid for by General Electric urging the federal government to leave the river alone. The fact that locals trust a multinational corporation more than the federal government doesn't surprise John Allen, an expert on brands and imaging with Lippincott and Margulies in New York City. Over the years, Allen says, GE has employed sophisticated ad techniques, building the sort of public confidence that other corporations envy.
[MUSICAL COMMERCIAL CHORUS SINGING] WE BRING GOOD THINGS TO LIFE-- GE-- GE-- WE BRING GOOD THINGS TO LIFE.
JOHN ALLEN: We just bring good things to life advertising that's done and you see on Sunday morning, this is why they've been building this stuff all those years -- this is what good brand management's all about. Now they're leveraging it a bit.
BRIAN MANN: While GE has spent millions making its brand a symbol of quality and trust, Allen says the federal government has built a different sort of image bound up with taxes and scandal and inefficiency.
JOHN ALLEN: GE puts food on the table and cars in the garage and the government just takes things away from these people. You know, the, the U.S. Government brand is-- is not at the top of the brand equity pyramid, you know?
ANNE RYSCHLENSKI: There is a fundamental distrust, and I think that this has certainly been taken advantage of by General Electric with the ad campaign. It plays on all of those historic fears.
BRIAN MANN: Anne Ryschlenski is a public affairs specialist with the EPA who's worked on the Hudson River Project for 10 years.
ANNE RYSCHLENSKI: GE is going around telling people we're going to decimate the 40-mile stretch; we're going to yank out the river bottom. They'll close the river down for 20 years. That's nonsense.
BRIAN MANN: Nonsense or not, Ryschlenski concedes that the company's campaign has worked.
ANNE RYSCHLENSKI: This is quite unique in that we have a portion of - a considerable portion of the Hudson Valley that does not want a contaminant taken out of their midst.
BRIAN MANN: GE and the Environmental Protection Agency have offered two very different visions of the Hudson River. Faced with a choice between the government's dire warnings and the assurances offered in GE's ads, many here have chosen to side with the company. In part that's because locals worry that dredging will ruin the region's image, slowing tourism and slashing property values. But the EPA's arguments in favor of the cleanup have also seemed muddled and bureaucratic when matched against GE's polished message. Andy Mele heads a pro-environment group called Sloop Clearwater.
ANDY MELE: GE's media strategy has been to get you to distrust government, to distrust science -they've turned this whole area into the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I think every polluter is out there watching General Electric on this one, going to school on it.
BRIAN MANN: The EPA will make its final ruling on the Hudson cleanup in August. If the government decides to move forward GE's media campaign is expected to continue as the corporation shifts its fight to the courts. For On the Media, I'm Brian Mann in Hudson Falls, New York. [MUSIC]