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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eating fish from the hudson river
« Click on the map at left to see which types of Hudson River fish are safe (and not safe) to eat (PDF opens in new window)

Throughout the years of back and forth, a group of scientists has adamantly claimed that dredging is not the answer. Some have said that the best way to deal with the problem is to leave the PCBs alone and allow nature break them down over time. Scooping them up, the anti-dredging activists add, would send toxic particles floating downstream. And to some extent, that view was validated after the first round of dredging in 2009, when PCB levels did increase by a factor of at least 25, according to Robert Michaels, Ph.D., the president of RAM TRAC Corp., a health-risk assessment consulting firm in Schenectady. In fact, he says, free-floating PCB particles won’t settle back down in mud again for 46 years under the best-case predictions, which means the next few decades of dredging will make things worse than if nothing had been done at all.

Places like Westchester County “are where those things are going,” Michaels says. “They go long distances for long periods of time without resting. The dredging made the PCBs available in a way they weren’t when they were buried. Before they could be broken down at a microbial level, but now they are exposed and can make their way into other ecosystems. For example, they’ll be absorbed by fish and passed on to birds who eat the fish, and consequently people who hunt the birds.”

The EPA does not agree with Michaels’ assessment. They say that, although PCB levels in the water spiked initially, they dropped soon after the dredging ended “so there was no long-term damage to the river,” Enck says. Still, the agency did institute some procedural changes after Phase I. Initially, 37 percent of the PCBs — those in tough-to-dredge areas — were “capped” with stone. In Phase II, just 11 percent of the areas must be capped, with an allowance of up to 21 percent if the concentration of PCBs is more severe than expected. Similarly, scoops have to dig deeper this time, to grab more muck, so the chances of it spreading downstream are minimized.

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

And how does the dredging affect life in Fort Edward? In the small downtown area along Broadway, “for rent” signs are fastened to empty storefronts near a pawn shop and Sass ’n Class Department Store. Across the street, a mural bears the slogan “By river, by road, by rail, all paths lead to Fort Edward” above a two-masted ship cruising on water the color of sapphires. “We’re lucky we still have a paper mill here. That’s almost a fluke,” says Paul McCarty, director of the Fort Edward Historical Association, of a village in which the population is half of what it was a century ago.

A six-generation resident, McCarty remembers how his mother worked in GE’s Fort Edward factory during World War II testing gun sights. Perhaps that connection explains his unwillingness to take a stand about whether the dredging is a positive development, although he did say that now that the project is underway, the issue is not as divisive as it once was. For him, the greater concern is that Fort Edward’s name has become like Bhopal or Chernobyl in other people’s eyes. “It’s still, ‘Oh, you’re from that PCB place?’ ” he says. But with the dredging, economic help — at least in the short term — may have arrived: the cleanup employs 500 people, most of them local, who work on 100 barges and boats during dredging season.

Another paradox may be Jim Flynn, a retired nurse from nearby Glens Falls who is in or on the river “three times a day” despite the PCBs. Wiry and wearing athletic sandals, Flynn was checking out the Hudson to admire how the winter’s floods had exposed the ruins of an old factory. But while many residents have become inured to their fate, Flynn still seems to harbor a tinge of bitterness about getting a raw deal all those decades ago. “I’m not an environmental freak,” he says, gazing down at the river’s glittering ripples. “But trashing a place really bothers me.”


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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