HUDSON RIVER — The dredging done by General Electric as part of a federally-ordered cleanup of PCBs did significant harm to the environment, destroying wetlands, according to a report released Friday by the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees.
The trustees said damage done during the Superfund cleanup included removal of natural resources like freshwater mussels, wetlands, shoreline trees and aquatic vegetation.
The trustees — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation — are conducting a legally required review of the damage to natural resources, which is separate from the cleanup of the river ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. The order came after decades of study and over the persistent objections of GE.
GE ultimately spent around $1.7 billion on a multi-year dredging project between Fort Edward and Troy that began in 2009 and ended in 2015.
Covering a 40-mile stretch of the upper Hudson, it was the largest environmental cleanup ever undertaken. Since dredging ended, there have been reviews of whether the dredging was successful, numerous calls from environmental organizations for more dredging, and studies of whether additional cleanup is needed on floodplains.
The EPA declared in 2019 that GE had carried out the cleanup successfully, but New York state subsequently sued, contending the cleanup remains unfinished.
All the while, the separate process to determine the extent of damage to natural resources has been moving forward.
The documentation of natural resource damage could lead to the government seeking financial compensation from GE, which discharged the polychlorinated biphenyls into the river from capacitor plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls between 1946 and 1977.
“The trustees’ goal is to measure past, present and future resource injuries and lost uses from the PCBs, including the cleanup remedy, and develop a plan to restore these resources,” the report released Friday said.
Cleanup actions usually have environmental benefits and environmental costs, the report said. The damage included the destruction of 30 acres of wetlands that are habitat for wildlife and act as buffers against flooding, the dredging of 133 acres of aquatic vegetation that serve as food and shelter for wildlife, and the removal of more than 3,000 trees along the shoreline that provide wildlife habitat, but also filter nutrients and reduce soil erosion.
Additionally, based upon mussel densities observed before and after dredging, the trustees preliminarily determined that the dredging destroyed more than 50 million freshwater mussels.
“GE’s dredging harmed the natural resources of the Hudson River to varying degrees and the loss of these resources constitutes a natural resource injury under federal law and regulation,” the Hudson River Trustees said in releasing the report.
While the dredging project required GE to replace or restore damaged river habitats, the trustees found that work hasn’t been entirely successful and GE is still liable for the harm done.
“Monitoring of the reconstructed habitats along the Hudson River indicates that many wetlands and aquatic vegetation beds are not recovering as planned,” the report said. “GE was not required to replace most of the trees and shrubs that were cut along the Hudson River shoreline, and many of these areas have reduced canopy cover compared to nearby uncut shorelines.”
A future report will more fully quantify the damages, the trustees said.
GE, in a press release, didn’t dispute the specific findings, but noted it worked closely with the EPA in developing the habitat restoration plan, and the EPA in 2015 termed the cleanup a “historic achievement.”
“GE worked closely with the U.S. EPA and other federal and state agencies, and carefully followed the plans they approved, to ensure the successful completion of the Hudson River dredging project,” said Mark Behan, a spokesman for GE on the cleanup. “As dredging was completed, GE placed clean, locally sourced fill across the river bottom and planted 1.4 million new plants to restore wildlife habitat in dredged areas. GE agrees with EPA’s conclusion that the project was a ‘historic achievement for the recovery of the Hudson River.’’’