Scooping river mud puts skill, technology to the test
Dredge operators working on project supplied by Local 106
MOREAU From outside his rig, excavator operator Richard Mosher’s job may look like any other dredging operation on any river in the world.
Using two operating sticks in his cab, he drops the bucket of his excavator into the muddy Hudson River to scrape out the PCB-laden muck from the river bottom, then swings the bucket over to a barge, where it’s dumped to be taken away and processed.
But, back in his cab, it’s a high-tech world.
A computer monitor tells Mosher exactly where to drop his big blue dredge bucket and how deep into the river sediment he must dig. The specialized computer program won’t let the dredge bucket dig deeper than specified, even if Mosher wanted to.
Mosher, 46, from the Warren County town of Johnsburg, and dozens of other dredge engineers work 12-hour shifts for six and sometimes seven days each week, but he’s not complaining.
“The pay is good and I have a good crew,” Mosher said.
He is a member of Local 106, In-
ternational Union of Operating Engineers, headquartered in Glenmont near Albany.
As a journeyman operating engineer, Mosher makes at least $30 per hour, not including overtime operating the brand new Caterpillar excavator, said Bob Jones, business manager for Local 106.
“He will be able to make a lot of money in short period of time,” Jones said of Mosher and the other dredge operators.
The crew was hired by Cashman Dredging and Marine Contracting Co. of Quincy, Mass., a dredging contractor that was hired by General Electric Co. to do the work.
Mosher’s excavator is secured to a floating dredge platform stationed in the west channel of the Hudson near the town of Moreau.
The crews work night or day — Mosher said it doesn’t really matter — but at night, he said, the computer monitor in his excavator cab is easier to read.
His crew includes a dredge captain, a laborer and an equipment maintenance person. All the dredging equipment is coordinated by a river traffic control center on the banks of the Hudson in the town of Moreau. “It’s pretty neat,” said David King, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Hudson River Field Office in Fort Edward.
“I enjoy watching them do that,” King said about the engineers operating the environmental dredges. “It’s all computerized.”
GE contractors took 50,000 samples of river-bottom sediment in the upper Hudson River between Fort Edward and Troy in recent years. Using information from those samples, computerized river-bottom maps and grids were created. The grids include areas where high levels of PCB-contaminated river sediment are located. The grids and maps are all tied into the dredge operator’s computer and an identical computer monitor in a small cabin on the dredge float. The dredge captain monitors the dredge work being done by the operating engineer.
Computerized systems using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology show every dredge, tugboat, barge and support boat on the river.
Chris Ham, a vessel traffic service operator at the Cashman control center on the shore, can tell exactly where the six dredges, the two dozen barges and 10 tugboats are on the river at any time from his seat behind three large computer screens.
The dredging in the east and west channels of the Hudson around Rogers Island between Moreau and Fort Edward started May 15. The work in this area will continue through July — 24 hours a day, six days a week.
Higher than normal river water speed has prevented 24-hour-per-day dredging on some days. The dredges must be shut down when the water flow exceeds 8,000 cubic feet per second.
Later this summer, dredging will move down river about six miles to an area near Griffin Island off the town of Northumberland, where work will continue into the fall. Dredging will end for the season in early November when the Champlain Barge Canal shuts down for the winter.
The Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 ordered GE to pay for and conduct the estimated $780 million project to remove river sediment contaminated by PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which the EPA says are a probable carcinogen that also cause other health problems in humans and wildlife.
GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward discharged 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson for 30 years, ending in 1977 when the practice was banned.
The International Union of Operating Engineers had about 30 dredge operators working for Cashman Dredging at the start of the dredge project, but will have 70 to 80 operators working when the project gets into full swing later this summer.
Jones, of Local 106, said his local has approximately 1,700 members in 21 counties in upstate New York.
John Haggard, GE’s Hudson River project manager, said the first 81-car train loaded with PCB sludge that had been processed at the 100-acre processing and dewatering plant on the Champlain Canal in Fort Edward was sent on its way recently to a hazardous waste landfill near Andrews, Texas.
Haggard said the amount of river sediment being dredged and processed is somewhat less than projected for the first month. He said GE wanted to have 36,000 cubic yards dredged by June 26, but only about 26,000 cubic yards has been removed from the river because of periods of high water flow.