Cleaning the Hudson

PCB contamination led to the Hudson River being designated a Superfund site in 1984

By Eilis Oneill, Esha Dey and Miguel Fernández

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The Hudson River runs from Lake Tear in the Clouds to New York Harbor. General Electric dumped PCBs into the river some 200 miles north of New York City. (New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

The gleaming blue waters of the Hudson River are a welcome relief for the New Yorkers who often come to its banks for a moment of rare tranquility. But a sight of the Hudson was not always so serene. Historians remember the time when a stroll along the river meant seeing hundreds or thousands of floating dead fish. That was in the mid-twentieth century, when sewage and industrial waste were dumped freely into the river, leading to a fast deterioration in the health of its ecosystem.

Fishermen first raised the alarm in the early 1970s when they started noticing a sharp decrease in their catch. Tests of the Hudson’s fish revealed a high rate of chemical contamination, especially of an industrial waste product called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. PCBs were once widely used in the manufacturing of electrical devices, such as transformers and capacitors, and are now known to cause cancer because they interfere with human hormones. The bulk of the PCBs found in the Hudson came from two capacitor-manufacturing plants owned by the General Electric Co, situated in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls.

“Between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s, General Electric essentially discharged around one- to one-and-a-half-million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. PCBs were not banned as a substance, and technically there was no law preventing [GE] from doing this,” Phillip Musegaas, the director of the Hudson River Program at the environmental group Riverkeeper, said in an interview.

When local communities, health activists, and environmentalists realized that the carcinogenic PCBs were making their way from the river into humans through fish, they started to agitate for action. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the production of PCBs in 1979 and, five years later, in 1984, named the Hudson a superfund site—a highly contaminated place where the “responsible party” (the polluter) is required to dig up the economic resources required for environmental cleanup. What ensued was a lengthy legal battle over the science of cleaning up toxic chemicals.

GE argued that dredging the river sediment (pulling up contaminated mud by the bucketful) would end up doing more damage than good by stirring up the pollution. Environmentalists disagreed. GE had dumped PCBs into the river for decades without any preliminary filtering, so the toxin had accumulated in the sediment and was working its way up into the food chain through aquatic vegetation, smaller fish, and the river’s famed striped bass, and into people. “The science really shows that removing the contamination from the environment is better than letting it sit … because, if you leave it, it continues to bioaccumulate through the food chain,” Riverkeeper’s Musegaas said.

Ultimately, Musegaas’ view carried the day in court, though GE continued to argue for “capping” (covering up contaminated sediment with clean soil) even after it started dredging in 2009.

The dredging process involves physically removing contaminated sediment, removing the water from the sediment and then treating the water, and putting the dried, contaminated sediment in a secure landfill. The process is overseen and regulated by the EPA, which says one more year of dredging will be required to reach the goal of removing 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment.

Government agencies and environmental groups are divided about whether or not the cleanup has been successful. For example, the EPA is satisfied with the dredging process, agency spokesperson Larisa Romanowski said in an interview. Nonetheless, she cautioned, the long-term consequences and effectiveness of the cleanup will be evident only through detailed analysis of the river water and its ecosystem. “At this point we are not able make any conclusion or make any assessment about the efficacy of the work that is underway,” she explained. “So we will not be expecting to see any advantages of the dredging until some point in the future until the dredging is actually completed.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees, a group of government agencies that are overseeing the cleanup, would like to require GE to dredge not only the main tributary of the river but also the 136-acre Champlain Canal, which was contaminated by PCBs, but which GE has so far refused to clean up.

Environmentalists’ views of the river cleanup also run the gamut. The Hudson River Foundation, for example, like the EPA, plans to wait for the data. The jury is still out as to whether or not the dredging has really reduced the amount of PCBs coming downstream,” Dennis Suszkowski, the science director of the Hudson River Foundation, said in an interview. “Common sense would tell you that it did, but we’ll wait to see what the data has to say.”

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Striped bass can accumulate PCBs, which are dangerous to human health. (New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

Scenic Hudson, another environmental group, says it’s already clear that GE hasn’t done nearly enough to clean up the river. “It’s understood that you cannot possibly get every molecule of PCB out of the sediment. But what has been left behind is so highly contaminated that it is just going to, over time, spread out, and re-contaminate areas and you will end up not having a river that has recovered, for 60 to 100 years, even more,” Hayley Carlock, an environmental attorney with Scenic Hudson, said in an interview.

Riverkeeper falls somewhere in the middle. “If you step back and look at this as a whole, we see this as a victory,” Musegaas said. “GE was finally persuaded to come and do this cleanup, and the cleanup that they’ve done over the last five years has removed huge amounts of contamination from the upper Hudson.”

“We’d like to see people fishing for striped bass and catching striped bass and shad on the Hudson in the future and not having to worry about a health advisory,” he adds. “And I think we’re going to see that future.”

 

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