Hudson River cleanup: long, costly and uncertain
Almost every time anglers such as Gil Hawkins fish the Hudson River, they throw back their catch — because PCB contamination has placed severe restrictions on what can be eaten. There’s so much pollution that commercial fishing is banned. Marinas along the landmark river have to pay high fees to dispose of contaminated mud when they conduct routine dredging.
And while the Hudson River is being celebrated this summer, on the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic voyage, it still holds the awful distinction of being the nation’s largest Superfund site.
None of this is likely to change soon.
Even though a long-awaited cleanup of PCBs began in May, it may not benefit North Jersey’s portion of the polluted waterway for 30 years — if at all.
“You don’t just drop 1.3 million pounds [of PCBs] in the river and think the river and its fish are going to rebound after one dredging action,” said Hawkins, a Leonia, N.J., resident and a member of the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association. “The water will become cleaner, but it’s going to take some time.”
In order for the lower Hudson and New York Harbor to reach safe standards by 2040, about 2 million cubic yards of PCB-laden sediment — enough to fill 100,000 large dump trucks — must be dredged from the Hudson. The heavily contaminated Passaic River also needs a cleanup, because its pollution washes into the Hudson and adds to the contamination there, according to an ongoing scientific study of contaminants in the harbor. But there is uncertainty over whether those cleanups will ever get off the ground, let alone be completed.
General Electric Co., which legally released 1.3 million pounds of the chemical into the Hudson for decades, has yet to commit to a full $750 million cleanup of the river. The first phase of dredging, which began May 15 in an area 200 miles north of New Jersey, is considered a test run and would remove only about 10 percent the contaminated mud.
Meanwhile, the only major remediation project scheduled for the Passaic River is the removal of cancer-causing dioxins from a small portion of the riverbed in Newark.
PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
About 75 percent of the PCBs in New York Harbor come from the upper Hudson, where 500 pounds of the suspected carcinogen pours over the Troy Dam each year, spreading pollution all the way down the river, through New York Harbor and into Newark Bay. The rest comes from several sources, including the Passaic River, which is also a Superfund site and considered one of the most polluted waterways in America.
The Hudson PCBs originated from GE’s capacitor plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, N.Y., where the chemical was used as a lubricant for machine parts until it was banned in the U.S. in 1977. A crucial moment occurred in 1973, when a decaying dam was removed 40 miles north of Albany and large amounts of PCBs flowed downriver.
The EPA initially decided against dredging the Hudson, believing the PCBs were entombed in the riverbed. But the agency reversed course in the late 1990s when reports showed that PCBs were escaping from the mud and migrating downstream. After years of legal wrangling with the EPA, GE agreed to dredge 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment — enough to fill the Empire State Building to the 15th floor — from the Hudson about 40 miles north of Albany. It is the first phase of the EPA’s plan to dredge 2 million cubic yards.
Up to 12 excavators will scoop sediment along a 7-mile stretch through November.
The dredging will be deliberately slow to avoid stirring up PCBs in the river — one of the arguments GE made for years against dredging. Metal curtains will surround some dredge sites, and work will halt when the current is too strong. Despite such precautions, EPA officials said a small amount of PCBs will become free in the river.
“There will be some increased numbers,” said Ben Conetta, the Hudson River project manager for the EPA. “But over the long term, that number is going to go substantially down.”
The contaminated sediment will be lifted onto barges and taken to a new dewatering facility in Fort Edward. Up to 2 million gallons a day can be filtered, tested and released back into the nearby Champlain Canal if it meets New York’s safe-water standards. The dry polluted sediment will be placed on rail cars next to the plant and taken to a disposal facility in Texas.
Once Phase 1 is complete, an independent panel will evaluate the project, looking at several areas, including the amount of PCBs that have been resuspended in the river. After that, there is uncertainty.
Under the EPA’s plan, Phase 2 calls for 1.8 million cubic yards of sediment to be dredged from a 40-mile section of the river north of Albany. It is scheduled to start in 2011 and last five years, but GE can opt out of the project under an agreement with the EPA.
A GE spokesman said the company will wait until the report is issued on Phase 1.
Besides the $750 million combined cost of Phases 1 and 2 for GE, the company would have to pay an additional $78 million to the EPA if the company takes on Phase 2 — that money would cover the EPA’s past and future costs, according to government documents. The EPA can sue GE to perform Phase 2 or reimburse the government if the agency uses taxpayer funds to dredge the river.
Several environmental advocacy groups, which spent years fighting GE to clean up the river, are cautiously optimistic that GE will commit to Phase 2. They point to the amount of money the company has already spent — $629 million — on Hudson River projects since 1990, including dredging preparation, the construction of the water plant and the PCB cleanups at its Hudson Falls and Fort Edward plants.
But adding to the doubts is GE’s ongoing court battle challenging the validity of the Superfund law itself. GE has argued that the EPA’s ability to order Superfund cleanups in nonemergency situations violates the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
In January, a federal judge upheld the Superfund law. GE appealed.
By Scott Fallon
Richmond Times Dispatch