The PCBs of the Hudson River


One would be forgiven for not believing headlines last week stating that General Electric has finally started the process of dredging the Upper Hudson in an effort to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the river. Forgiven because it has been more than half a century since GE began dumping PCBs into the Hudson and decades since environmental organizations called attention to the problem.

Last Monday the company reluctantly undertook what is said to be a six-year effort to dredge the river and remove the sediment, which will be carried by barge to a dewatering facility in Fort Edward. According to Reuters, the aim of the first phase of the project is to remove 265,000 cubic yards of sediment and 20,300 kilograms of PCBs. Phase II, if Phase II is reached, will be completed in 2015.

The Hudson River is 315 miles long and flows from the Adirondacks to the Upper New York Bay. Its source is said to be Lake Tear of the Clouds high up in the Adirondack Mountains, on the southwest slope of Mt. Marcy, New York’s tallest peak. The tarn was discovered by the land surveyor Verplanck Colvin in 1872 who wrote:

“Far above the chilly waters of Lake Avalanche at an elevation of 4,293 feet lies summit water, a minute, unpretending, tear of the clouds — as it were — a lovely pool shivering in the breezes of the mountains and sending its limpid surplus through Feldspar Brook to the Opalescent River, the well-spring of the Hudson.”

No one would ever consider dumping chemicals into Lake Tear of the Clouds. It’s too far, the climb too long. But further downstream, as the river widens and meanders toward New York City, it evidently becomes easier.

For a thirty-year period, from 1947 to 1977, GE pumped some 1.3 million pounds of PCBs from manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards into the Hudson. PCBs, which were banned in the 1970s and are no longer produced in the United States accumulate over time in fish and other small organisms and may reach levels dangerous to human health. The EPA limit on PCBs is 0.0005 milligrams per liter of drinking water.

The EPA studied PCB contamination of the Hudson as early as 1983. But it has taken more than two decades for the agency to force GE’s hand and remove the contaminated sediment from the river.

A New York Times editorial said the cleanup “was testimony to the power of sustained advocacy, and a tribute to everyone — private citizens, environmental groups, scientists, politicians from both parties — who had fought to make it happen.” While that is all true it also seems to be testimony to the power of GE, America’s industrial giant, to forestall, delay, and evade the efforts of citizens and activists who have called on the company to clean the river for three decades.

The process has been long and many environmental groups are hardly confident that GE will follow through on its commitment. In 2009, at the end of the first phase, an independent panel will review the results of the dredging and offer recommendations. The potential for delays and additional lawsuits has many worried. Riverkeeper attorney Rebecca Troutman said in a press release that, “We are hopeful that the new EPA Administrator will follow this closely and minimize that possibility. We intend to do the same.”

While the dredging of the Hudson has been claimed as a victory of sorts for environmentalists in New York, it has raised concerns in West Texas where the contaminated sediment will be sent. Environmentalists argue that use of the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site in Andrews, Texas could poison the Ogallala aquifer and are demanding an Environmental Impact Statement.

Dr. Neil Carman, a chemist with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club said, “This is like a shell game, moving hazardous toxic PCBs from one sensitive location to another.”

Efforts to store low-level radioactive waste at the Texas site, and a decision reached earlier this year granting permits to the company to do so, have been controversial.

In fact, a longtime official with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Glen Lewis, resigned after learning that the WCS landfill had been given the green light to store radioactive waste. Lewis, who had been involved in a review of the facility, told a local television station in Lubbock that he opposed the recommendation and that two other employees had also quit after learning of the state’s decision.

“All of our time has been wasted,” he told KCBD. “We’ve all been played for suckers, we’ve all been pointless impediments to a process that resulted in issuing this license from the first day.” Lewis says the risk of contaminating the aquifer, which provides drinking water to residents of Lubbock, is too great.

But the plan to ship 81 carloads of contaminated sediment every four to five days for six months beginning this summer will move ahead. “The train cars will have plastic covers that would do nothing to hold the toxic waste in the event of a derailment,” the Sierra Club’s Carman said. “Communities along the route must be informed and first responders warned so they can be prepared to handle a potential disaster.”

I suppose a certain amount of progress has been made. This time around, residents know the PCBs are coming.

For the view from Texas see Laray Polk’s RadWaste and Texas’ Future.

ADAM FEDERMAN is a writer in New York and a regular contributor to Earth Island Journal. He can be reached at: adamfederman@gmail.com


Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

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