There’s a loud, distracting rumbling in Julie Wilson’s backyard now.
The noise is from the new PCB processing plant that started up May 15 and will run around the clock six days a week, with Sundays off, for five months as work begins in earnest on a massive GE project to remove PCBs from the bottom of the Hudson River here.
“It just makes it so unpleasant for customers and friends,” Wilson said.
For more than 35 years, Wilson has operated a day lily farm on 4.5 acres on East Road in Fort Edward.
What were once rolling cornfields behind their home is now a 20-foot-high berm. Behind the berm is the river sludge dewatering and processing plant, six miles of railroad tracks and a barge landing wharf on the Champlain Canal.
From the Wedgewood Golf Club, across the barge canal from the dewatering operation, the barges and tugboats coming to the plant’s landing wharf are easy to see.
“This year so far hasn’t been too bad,” said Troy Tyler, one of the three brothers who own the par-three course. “We are waiting to see what it’s like when [the sludge processing] is running full-scale.”
Dust covering parts of the course was a problem two years ago when the 100-acre site was being built, he said. Noise was the problem last year, when the pilings for the barge wharf on the canal were being driven.
Dust covered all of Wilson’s backyard.
“It was more than dust; it was a sand storm,” she said. “It covered everything.”
Yet her gardens, which include 500 varieties of hybrid lilies, thrived.
Her view remains dark.
“It was a quiet, bucolic landscape,” Wilson said.
She said that when the processing plant site was first chosen in 2004, she was angry and questioned the site selection. Her current mood about the noisy operation is “absolute sadness.
“It’s noisy, dirty and unpleasant and is impacting our entire community,” Wilson said. She’s hung special curtains to block out the bright lights that shine all night, part of the 24-hour operation.
David King, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Fort Edward field office, said there are noise and air quality monitors on the golf course. So far, these monitors have not had readings that exceeded the noise and air quality standards established for the project, he said.
Tim Havens of Hudson Falls, president of the anti-dredging organization CEASE (Citizen Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation), is convinced that the EPA and General Electric will fail in their attempt to successfully dredge the upper Hudson River to remove PCB “hot spots” between Fort Edward and Troy over the next six years.
GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward discharged an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a probable carcinogen) into the Hudson for 30 years, ending in 1977 when the practice was banned by the government.
Havens, and his wife Jane, who is CEASE’s treasurer, watched carefully on May 15 when the first big blue clamshell environmental dredge went into operation in the Hudson along the Moreau shoreline.
“Water and river sediments were coming out of the sides [of the bucket dredge],” Jane Havens said. “They said it was going to be enclosed and safe.”
Tim Havens said the use of the clamshell dredges will send resuspended PCBs downriver during the process. During the decade-long planning sessions that preceded the EPA’s record of decision, a hydraulic, suction-type dredging method, rather than an environmental dredge bucket, was considered but ultimately rejected as not practical for the large Hudson project.
When the EPA ordered GE to pay for the estimated $780 million dredge project in 2002, the order included complex performance standards that will require the dredging to stop if the resuspended PCBs in the river water reach certain levels.
Havens feels that these performance standards will be very hard, if not impossible, to meet.
“I don’t care about being right,” Havens said. “But my fears are coming true.”
The start of dredging was suspended after just one full 24-hour period on May 15 and May 16 because heavy rains in the North Country caused the river water flow to exceed acceptable dredging safety levels late on May 16. Dredging resumed last week when the flow decreased.
Only one barge-load of dredged, contaminated river sediment (about 800 cubic yards) had been removed from the river bottom and unloaded at the processing plant on the barge canal as of May 21. King said resuspension of PCBs into the river water during dredging has not been a significant problem so far.
Havens believes that GE spent the necessary amount of money and hired the best contractors so that the dredge project would be successful.
“It still doesn’t mean that it can be done,” Havens said.
Havens says that CEASE still has “several thousand” supporters in the Hudson Falls-Fort Edward area of Washington County as well as in Moreau in Saratoga County.
He said members of the organization will carefully monitor all aspects of the project and voice their concerns “loud and clear” when necessary.
“I honestly do not believe there can be a successful dredge,” said Sharon Ruggi of Fort Edward, another longtime dredging opponent and member of CEASE.
She said she has studied other large-scale environmental dredging operations in the United States and “they have never achieved the success that was anticipated.”
Ruggi and Havens fought two state-sponsored PCB river dredging projects in the 1980s. Both of these projects were rejected because they included large PCB sludge landfills in Fort Edward.
The dredging project will bring the PCB-contaminated sludge up the Hudson by tugboat and barge through Lock 7 of the Champlain Canal to the processing site, where the material will be processed and water removed. The material will then be loaded onto railroad cars and taken by rail to a hazardous waste landfill near Andrews, Texas.
The first phase of the dredging is being done around Rogers Island between Fort Edward and Moreau. Later in the summer, it will move several miles downriver to around Griffin Island. This phase, which will end in late October, is considered experimental. The much larger, second phase of the project will start after reports are done on the first phase and an independent panel of scientists and engineers review the results and make recommendations.
Making the best of it
Mark L. Behan, a GE spokesman, said that all of the diesel dredging equipment is equipped with “hospital-grade mufflers” to reduce noise when the dredges are on the river and near the shoreline. The lights on the dredge equipment are also specially equipped with pumpkin-like covers that direct the light down at the river and prevent it from shining onto the shore.
Fort Edward Mayor Matt Traver said the dredging project is something the village has to “live with.”
“We’ve had a lot of help and support from GE,” Traver said.
He said the 500 workers employed with the dredging project have brought good business to the local diners and restaurants and at least one small local hotel.
In addition, a local contractor, Adirondack Mechanical Services, was hired by the main contractor, Sevenson Environmental Services of Niagara Falls, which built the PCB sludge processing complex.
“We are also looking at the reuse of the site after dredging,” Traver said.
He said a group of graduate students at the state College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse did a study of possible uses for the water treatment plant, the large rail yard, the big holding buildings and the barge wharf after the project is finished six or 10 years from now.
He said there is great potential for the site, which is currently owned by a limited liability company associated with D.A. Collins Cos. of Mechanicville.
He said the rail yard and barge canal access would be “perfect for bringing products to New York City.”