Hudson River PCBs Contamination: Phase 2 of Dredging the Hudson River, Upstate NY

Decades in the making, the contamination of the upper Hudson is finally being cleaned up — or is it? An update on Phase II of the General Electric-funded dredging of PCBs from the river

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Summer was in full swing in Fort Edward, New York. On a hot July day last year, a family gathered around a picnic table in Bradley Park, which juts out into the Hudson River. Across the glittering water, two bare-chested men in jeans cast fishing poles near a paper plant. And next to a velvety-green baseball field, kids shrieked and splashed in a pool. Yet just to the left, in the western channel along Rogers Island, an activity was taking place that was hardly a typical warm-weather pastime.

On a rust-red barge with “Poseidon” stenciled on the side, two dozen workers in hard hats sent wild celery and other plants down tubes to divers, who planted them in a grid along the river bottom. A far cry from hauling old tires out of the water, the underwater gardening session was part of what is thought to be one of the country’s largest-ever river cleanup efforts. The multiyear project is focused on ridding the Upper Hudson of some of its 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs — at a cost estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of between $1 and $2 billion.

It was in 2009 that cleanup crews hired by General Electric first got to work clearing PCB-laden sediment from the river. After all, the PCBs — chemicals thought to cause cancer — had been discharged from a nearby pair of GE factories over a three-decade period, from around World War II until the 1970s. In addition, PCB contamination is the main reason why people should be wary about eating striped bass or other fish caught between Fort Edward and Manhattan’s tip, almost 200 miles away.

Phase I of the cleanup attracted massive media attention; it was the culmination of a decades-long fight pitting environmental groups against a mighty corporation. But in many ways that effort, which targeted a six-mile stretch of the river over a six-month period, was a mere dress rehearsal for the main event: Phase II, which kicked off last summer and could last another five to seven years. This part of the project — which seeks to remove 2.4 million cubic yards of PCB-ridden sediment from the 40-mile stretch of river that extends from Fort Edward, past forests, fields, and villages, and over a few waterfalls, to the Federal Dam in Troy — is expected to cost $1 billion.

“The PCBs are the single most toxic threat to the river,” says Judith Enck, the EPA regional administrator who is overseeing GE’s cleanup, “so we’re very happy it’s finally underway.”

But with such a distant completion date, no one is immediately celebrating the restoration of the Hudson, which for decades was considered by many to be an open sewer. And it’s not even certain that the cleanup’s approach — which is to dig out the muck and haul it away, then replace it with fresh soil and plants — will actually improve water quality. In fact, some scientists claim dredging up the PCBs will make the river’s pollution worse.

The explanation of how this historic environmental undertaking came about is as long and winding as the river itself. And the story of what this massive, 24-hour-a-day dredging operation really entails? That makes for a pretty good yarn, too.


Photographs from our May 2012 feature story “A Long, Slow Cleanup (Part 2)” about PCBs contamination and the dredging the Hudson River, Upstate NY

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