PCBs won’t disappear anytime soon, regulators say
Federal regulators preparing a report on PCB contamination of the Hudson River say the waterway won’t be free of the toxin anytime soon.
“I think it is fair to be say we will be doing five-year reviews for the foreseeable future,” project director Gary Klawinski said during a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workshop Wednesday evening in suburban Albany.
The meeting was held to provide the public with a status report of the largest Superfund toxic waste cleanup in the nation.
According to the EPA, fiveyear scientific reviews are necessary when “remedial action leaves hazardous substances on the site at levels that do not allow for unlimited use and unrestricted exposure” to human beings and wildlife. The next fiveyear report is due in February and will be followed by public com-
ment and a meeting before a final report, scheduled to be issued April 23, 2017.
“We don’t want people eating the fish, but there’s only so much we can do relating to that,” Klawinski said. He said the recent multiyear dredging project was intended to speed up the process of cleaning the river and making the fish safe to eat, not to provide an immediate and final solution to the contamination.
He also said the recovery of the river is not likely to occur uniformly, with some sections remaining polluted.
“They took out 2.75 million cubic yards of PCBs, but that may not be enough to meet the goals and that is what the data is indicating,” said Abigail Jones, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group Riverkeeper who participated in the forum.
“The remedy is not working as they thought it was, and a large part of it has to do with the amount of contamination that was in the river. [That was] completely underestimated,” said Althea Mullarkey of Scenic Hudson, another environmental group. “If there’s a connection between the contamination in the sediment and the contamination in the water and the fish, which is the primary exposure pathway for humans, you’re leaving a lot of contamination behind.”
Mullarkey said that, despite the extensive dredging, “ecological risks are the same as they were 15 years ago and human risks are the same as they were. It doesn’t mean they have to run right out and dredge again, but they have to acknowledge it.”
An estimated 1.3 million pounds of industrial waste containing polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen, was dumped into the upper Hudson River from the 1940s until 1977 by General Electric, which operated electrical equipment manufacturing plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. Fire-resistant compounds containing PCBs were widely used for decades in the production of electrical equipment.
The chemical dumping resulted in the river from Washington County to New York Harbor becoming the largest toxic Superfund site in the U.S. The worst pollution is in a 40-mile stretch north of the Federal Dam in Troy, but PCBs are found in sediments, water, wildlife and human beings all the way down to New York City.
In recent years, under federal orders, General Electric dredged 2.75 million cubic yards of contaminated material from the river.
Dredging of river bottom sediments containing PCBs began in 2009 and was completed in 2015. The EPA now says the source of pollution is under control. But the levels of PCBs in fish are the same as they were prior to dredging, and people are still eating toxincontaminated fish taken from the river, contrary to state Health Department advisories.
PCBs have been linked to many illnesses, including cancer and birth defects. Eating PCB-contaminated fish carries a particularly high risk for children and pregnant women.
GE fought dredging for years, but a plan finally was put in place in 2002. It was carried out successfully, and the infrastructure put in place for the dredging is being decommissioned and could be sold for other industrial uses.
Still to be decided are whether federal Hudson River Natural Resources Trustee agencies will move to seek more dredging, including action by the state to require General Electric to dredge PCB sediments from the Champlain Canal to improve navigation.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has asked the EPA for more sampling and information about additional steps that can be taken to clean up the river.
The Hudson River, looking south from the house at the Olana State Historic Site in Greenport, Columbia County.