updated 10/6/2005 12:58:48 PM ET 2005-10-06T16:58:48

Federal authorities and General Electric Co. struck a deal Thursday on dredging PCB-contaminated sediment from the Hudson River, a big step forward in the delayed Superfund cleanup plan.

The deal was announced by the Environmental Protection Agency, which filed a consent decree in federal court in Albany, N.Y. (GE is a parent company in the joint venture that owns MSNBC.)

The Hudson River dredging project, estimated to cost some $500 million, had been delayed by the EPA, citing the complexity of the project to remove toxic PCBs from the riverbed.

In recent months, environmental groups have accused GE of stalling on the plan to try to evade the high costs of the cleanup project.

The dredging is now scheduled to begin in spring 2007, and Thursday’s pact calls for GE to pay the government up to $78 million for past and future costs. The company has already paid some $37 million.

“This is an historic agreement that commits GE to begin dredging the Hudson River,” said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

Christian Ballantine of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter said the consent order was a partial but important victory for their cleanup efforts.

“The environmental community wanted GE to finally accept responsibility and put their corporate know-how to work,” Ballantine said.

Under the terms of the agreement, GE will construct the sediment facility needed for the project and perform the first phase of dredging.

The company said in a statement that the deal shows it is committed to working with environmental regulators and the state. GE plans to build a 1,450-long terminal for the sediment facility in order to move up to 250 rail cars full of sediment a week.

The deal also calls for a scientific review after the first phase is completed, after which GE will decide whether it will perform the second phase.

The EPA said the total estimated cost of the first phase and building the sediment facility is between $100 million and $150 million.

“Apparently there is an opt-out provision for the second phase if they can’t meet the performance standards and then the government would have to use enforcement powers to make GE do the cleanup,” said Ballantine.

GE dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs — a viscous liquid coolant used in transformers — into the river from its plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls before the federal government banned the substance in 1977. PCBs are classified as a probable cause of cancer.

The EPA seeks to dredge some 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.

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