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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An anti-GE rally. Many environmentalists are most upset with the company not for causing the pollution, but for postponing the cleanup for so many years
Photograph courtesy of Scenic Hudson
In 1886, Thomas Edison moved his Edison Machine Works, which made generators, to a site along the Erie Canal in the rapidly growing industrial center of Schenectady. In 1892 that company merged with other manufacturers to form General Electric, which rolled out lights, engines, phonographs, and other must-have devices. In search of more space in the 1930s, GE built a factory in Fort Edward that produced parts for the defense effort during World War II. A few years later, the company also took over a red-brick factory a few blocks away in Hudson Falls.
GE’s goal was to get power to a suburbanizing America. Specifically, it produced capacitors, those gray, trashcan-sized objects that are clumped high on utility poles and control electrical output. As housing developers began to cut streets through farmland for subdivisions, those capacitors were suddenly in high demand.
But capacitors could burn up if they got too hot. So — to keep suburban streets from catching fire after people ran too many TVs and hair dryers — GE encased the capacitors in PCBs, which had first been manufactured commercially in the late 1920s and were used at the GE plants as a coolant. As business boomed, the PCBs flowed. From the beginning, they were discharged down pipes into the Hudson, or leaked into a water-filled underground passageway beneath the two plants and flushed back into the river.
At the time, GE was legally permitted to dispose of PCBs in the Hudson. While reports of the health dangers of PCBs first started circulating as early as the 1930s — a 1936 article published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workers who made PCB products suffered problems including skin lesions and digestive disturbances — it was not until 1979 that the EPA banned their manufacture. Still, the long-term effects of human exposure to PCBs — which some studies show cause cancer in rats — are hard to measure over the long term. They are only considered a probable human carcinogen by the EPA, although according to the agency, studies have shown that workers exposed to them have increased amounts of rare liver cancer and malignant melanoma. The EPA also reports that research has linked the chemicals to birth defects and elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. (Since no controlled studies with human subjects have been performed, a definitive link between PCB exposure and these health problems has not been established.)
Awareness of how badly the Fort Edward area was polluted came in 1973, with the removal of an old dam that spanned the river a short distance from the factories. Lurking behind that crumbling structure was a huge mound of PCB-laden mud. Removing the barrier sent a wave of toxic sludge downstream, causing PCB levels in the river to spike almost instantly. A New York State study performed on residents from Fort Edward, Hudson Falls, and neighboring Glens Falls showed that those with higher PCB levels in their bloodstreams scored lower on short-term memory tests and had more symptoms of depression, data that is consistent with other PCB research. In 1984, a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City, was declared a federal Superfund site — a designation reserved for the most toxic places in the country.
What rankles many cleanup advocates is not so much that GE was a polluter, but that it postponed the inevitable for so long. According to environmental advocacy groups, in the 1970s GE threatened to relocate its factories outside New York if it was held responsible for contamination. In the 1990s, the company launched a major marketing campaign in Fort Edward to convince residents that large-scale dredging was a bad idea. Those TV and radio ads, which some residents remember as being ubiquitous, may have prompted community opposition to the project. Specifically, residents challenged the burying of PCB sludge in nearby landfills as well as noise from the dredging operations and the increased presence of trucks.
Finally, in 2002, GE agreed to dredge — but only after the EPA ordered them to, critics point out. “They have been a difficult ‘responsible party,’ because they have been persistently resistant,” says Manna Jo Greene, the environmental director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in Beacon. “They fought the cleanup every step of the way, including a massive disinformation campaign and using whatever legal mechanisms were available.”
GE has a different spin on it. “What you don’t see is the enormous cleanup work that GE was doing in this period” of the 1980s and 1990s, says Mark Behan, GE’s spokesman, who added that once the more intensive cleanup was mandated by Washington, it agreed to it. Besides, the Fort Edward factory — which still makes capacitors (without PCBs) — employs nearly 300 people. “GE has been a major force for good economically in Upstate New York for 100 years,” Behan said, “and a leader for environmental cleanup.”