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updated 5/4/2010 7:06:01 PM ET 2010-05-04T23:06:01

A panel of scientists evaluating Hudson River dredging on Tuesday heard clashing ideas from General Electric Co. and federal regulators on the best way to continue the massive cleanup.

The panel is studying results of last year's test dredging at PCB "hot spots" on the river about 40 miles north of Albany. The panel will make recommendations this summer for the second phase of the dredging, a project that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to start next year.

Last year's dredging took longer than expected, mostly because the contamination of the riverbed was deeper than expected. PCBs also were kicked up into the water at a level that was higher than desired. The EPA and GE now have far different ideas about how to solve the problem of PCBs released into the river during dredging.

EPA project manager Ben Conetta believes the problem is manageable. The agency is calling for engineering changes, like taking bigger bites with dredge buckets and surrounding dredge areas with surface-to-riverbed "silt curtains."

Officials from Fairfield. Conn.-based GE say that continuing the dredging poses the risk of contaminating the river with higher levels of PCBs for decades.

"You defeat the fundamental objective of the remedy," said Ann Klee, GE's vice president for corporate environmental programs.

The company instead proposes setting a cap on the amount of PCBs that would be allowed to flow downstream during the next phase. Crews would start by targeting the contaminated areas that otherwise would be most likely to pollute fish downriver. The cleanup would stop if the cap was hit.

GE, which estimates that it has already spent $561 million on the project, also wants to limit the next phase to five years.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are considered probable carcinogens. GE plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls discharged wastewater containing PCBs for decades before the lubricant and coolant was banned in 1977.

EPA and GE disagree not only on how to proceed, but on many of the figures and models they are basing their recommendations on. Conetta said GE was proposing a partial remedy and that the company's interpretation of the dredging data was "overreaching."

"The long-term benefits of the remedy far outweigh those short-term impacts," he said.

The panel of scientists will study the sometimes conflicting data over the next three days in this Hudson River city as they work on their draft report due June 30.

GE could decide not to perform the next phase, though the EPA could continue the work and recoup costs from the company.

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