CAPITAL REGION — The $1.7 billion cleanup of PCBs in the Hudson River worked as intended, but it will still be more than 50 years before it will be safe to regularly eat fish from the river, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Thursday.
A legally mandated five-year review of the Hudson River concluded that no additional dredging is needed, and any additional dredging would only slightly change the river’s expected recovery time. Hudson River environmental groups, however, are unanimous in calling for more dredging to take place.
EPA Acting Regional Administrator Catherine McCabe said it will be about 55 years before levels of polychlorinated biphenyls in fish have dropped to the point whether they will be safe to eat on a weekly basis, but a fish meal once every two months should be considered safe within about 15 years.
“The Hudson River cleanup is working as designed and, while not yet protective, is expected to accomplish its long-term goal of protection of human health and the environment when the cleanup is completed,” McCabe said in a conference call about the release of the five-year evaluation.
She said the 55-year timeframe is what was expected when the EPA ordered General Electric to conduct the dredging in 2002.
The dredging that began in 2009 and concluded in 2015 removed an estimated 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river, but McCabe said it was never intended to remove all PCBs.
The majority of the PCBs in the river were discharged from GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward between 1946 and 1977, after which the use of PCBs was banned following research into their potential carcinogenic qualities.
GE has never publicly said what the cleanup cost, but McCabe mentioned the $1.7 billion figure.
GE issued a brief statement noting the report’s finding that the cleanup is working as intended, and that PCB levels in fish in the river have dropped.
“GE will continue to support the ongoing assessment of environmental conditions in the river and work closely with EPA, New York state, local communities and others committed to the goal of a cleaner Hudson,” GE spokesman Mark Behan said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation said in December, commenting during preparation of the five-year report, that the dredging has failed to protect public health and the environment. The department’s opinion didn’t change after Thursday’s pronouncement.
“We strongly dispute these conclusions and maintain that the significant amount of contamination left in the river threatens both public health and the environment,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a prepared statement after the EPA report was released. “DEC will continue to fight for the Hudson River and New Yorkers and hold the polluter accountable for its actions.”
McCabe refused to directly respond to DEC’s characterization but noted that the state is free to conduct dredging of its own, or to try to reach its own agreement with GE.
Other criticism was also leveled Thursday.
“The evidence clearly shows the Hudson River remedy is not protective of human health and the environment and will not meet EPA’s goals,” said Paul Gallay, president of Poughkeepsie-based Riverkeeper, which has called for dredging to resume. “EPA’s decision flies in the face of that evidence…We cannot accept an outcome that will leave Hudson River fish toxic for generations.”
The original studies in the 1990s that supported the dredging didn’t look beyond 2067, but they concluded that fish contamination would not improve in by then without a remediation project, spokesmen for the EPA and GE said.
McCabe noted that it will be up to the state Department of Health — not the federal government — to determine when advisories against eating fish caught in the river will be lifted.
“This decision is awful news for the Capital Region, the Hudson Valley, and all of the families who live near the Hudson River,” said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “I am disappointed that the EPA couldn’t muster up the courage to do the job they set out to do and clean up the Hudson.”
McCabe, however, said the five-year review, by law, was narrowly focused.
“The question the five-year review asks is, ‘Do we still think the cleanup decision we made in 2002 will provide long-term protection of human health and the environment?’ Based on the data we have today, the answer is yes,” she said.
Further dredging can’t be ruled out, if the data collected from fish samples and other sources changes,” McCabe said.
While the in-river dredging is done and the sediment processing facility in Fort Edward has been dismantled, GE contractors are sampling the flood plains between Hudson Falls and Troy to see if there’s contaminated sediment that requires removal. That testing is ongoing and could result in a new EPA cleanup order.
The EPA will take public comments on the report for the next 30 days before finalizing it.