PCBs remain in Hudson River water samples

Comes despite cleanup efforts
Dredging operations continue on the Hudson River in Mechanicville on June 19, 2015.
Dredging operations continue on the Hudson River in Mechanicville on June 19, 2015.

HUDSON RIVER — The amount of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Hudson River’s surface water continues to exceed state and federal safety standards, despite cleanup efforts, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The PCBs were found in 85 percent of more than 10,000 water samples taken from different parts of the river, and in samples from every year between 1975 and 2014, with spikes has high as one part per billion during the years dredging was taking place, according the report.

The report was issued on behalf of the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees. The trustees include the Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state Department of Environmental Conservation. Together they are studying the damage PCBs have done to the river’s natural resources.

“Injuries to the Hudson River from decades of PCB contamination continue to mount,” said Kathryn Jahn, the Department of the Interior’s case manager for the Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment. “PCBs released by General Electric have caused repeated and prolonged exceedances of state and federal water quality standards, contaminating surface water resources of the Hudson River.”

GE said on Wednesday that PCB levels are dropping over time, and the river’s condition is improving. The new study uses data collected before dredging ended in 2015, and GE says levels have dropped since then.

“GE’s work, in conjunction with federal and state regulatory agencies over the last 40 years, including the dredging project, has led to steady reductions in PCB levels in water, fish and sediment,” said Mark Behan, of Behan Communications, which handles PCB-related public relations for GE.

New York allows no more than 0.00012 parts per billion of PCBs for the protection of fish-eating wildlife, and has a 0.000001-parts-per-billion threshold to protect humans who consume fish.

“PCB concentrations were often hundreds of times higher than relevant state and federal health-protective regulatory criteria,” Fish & Wildlife officials said in a prepared statement about the new report.

The PCBs were found in all parts of the river downstream from the GE plants, including the lower river below the Troy dam, said Margaret Byrne, Fish & Wildlife’s assessment and restoration project manager for the Hudson.

“Under the Superfund law, GE is responsible for the remediation of the harm and the restoration of the natural resources from the harm,” Byrne said. “These exceedances count as an injury under the Superfund law.”

The natural resource damage assessment is separate from the dredging project and Superfund cleanup being overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and is looking specifically at the harm PCBs have done.

The release of the new report comes after GE has completed a $1.7 billion EPA-supervised dredging project that removed 2.75 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from the river between Hudson Falls and Troy. It also comes during an EPA study of whether that cleanup was successful in protecting the river. EPA staff have said they think the work was successful, though it is expected to take 50 years for fish caught from the river to be deemed safe to eat.

EPA officials said earlier this week that they will analyze additional sediment samples taken last summer by the DEC, which has called for the EPA to require additional dredging. Environmental groups praised the EPA’s decision to look at more data.

The natural resource trustees have called for more PCBs to be removed, as well as restoration of river habitat.

“We continue to be concerned about the significant PCB contamination left in the Hudson River, the time expected for the Hudson River ecosystem to recover from that contamination and the adverse impact of that contamination upon the wildlife, natural resources and the public that uses these resources,” Jahn wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the EPA.

“Those injuries extend for over 200 miles, have lasted for decades and will continue into the future,” the letter continued. “The PCB contamination adversely impacted recreational fishing and hunting through consumption advisories, and has potential adverse impacts to birds, mink, and other wildlife.”

The information being compiled by the Natural Resource Trustees will be used to determine actions GE may be required to undertake to compensate for damage, such as protecting land along the river and in its watershed or reducing the amount of contaminants in the river.

Behan said the dredging project has been deemed a ‘historic achievement’ by the EPA, and has removed nearly 80 percent of the PCBs in the Upper Hudson and produced a 73 percent drop in PCB levels in water since dredging ended in 2015 — after the last samples evaluated in the new study were collected. “EPA has said the remedy is functioning as intended, and PCB levels in water have declined at every monitoring station in the Upper and Lower Hudson since dredging ended,” he said. “EPA has said it expects those declines to continue.”

The PCBs, which are suspected carcinogens, were discharged from GE plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward between 1946 and 1977.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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