Even 25 miles downstream from where General Electric once dumped toxic polychlorinated biphenyls into the Hudson River, those PCBs linger.
They are found in the river bottom sediments sometimes in the hundreds of parts per million, enough to raise concerns about wildlife and human health. The government would like to see PCBs, classified as carcinogenic, at no more than one part per million.
This summer, the massive GE-funded Hudson River PCB dredging project has moved into the Stillwater-Mechanicville area. Clamshell dredges are filling giant barges with contaminated sediment within sight of those communities.
The diesel hum and grind around the clock is enough to bother some riverfront residents, even keeping them awake at night.
“It’s loud at night, and I hear swearing,” said Dave Barnes of Munson, Massachusetts, who has a seasonal camp facing the river on Ferry Lane, where houses are just yards from the water. “They’re up and down all night long.”
“It’s like a dog-and-pony show,” said Al Mackey, 65, a disabled veteran who has lived on Ferry Lane since 1990.
He said he wasn’t bothered or kept awake, “but it would bother people if it was right in front of you.”
The dredging, now in its fifth year, should wrap up next year with work taking place between Mechanicville and Troy and GE having spent well over $1 billion. The approaching end is enough to have some local officials concerned GE will walk away before the job, in their eyes, is finished.
There are concerns whether there are PCBs remaining on the river’s floodplains and whether more dredging is needed to improve boat navigation.
“We’re just worried that at the end of next year they will close the books and finish what they’ve committed to doing, but more work needs to be done,” said Saratoga town Supervisor Thomas N. Wood.
There are also calls for the work to continue after the worst of the PCBs are gone, with navigational dredging of the Champlain Canal, which runs in sections of the river.
“We’ve been talking about dredging the channel for years,” said Mechanicville city Supervisor Tom Richardson, chairman of the Historic Hudson-Hoosic Partnership, which is concerned lingering concerns about PCBs will impair the river’s recreational potential.
But neither GE or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to leave any time soon, despite the progress of the cleanup work. Post-dredging monitoring will last at least a decade, and a final solution for dealing with contamination found in the mighty river’s thousands of acres of floodplains is still years away.
“We’ll be keeping a field office for the Hudson River for the foreseeable future,” said Gary J. Klawinski, the EPA project manager.
GE spokesman Mark Behan said “an enormous amount of work has gone into the floodplains,” while acknowledging what’s been done to repair them to date are only interim measures.
The dredging — the largest environmental cleanup in history — is removing 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson between Fort Edward and Troy. GE fought hard not have to dredge, but by all accounts has done a good job since being ordered to by the EPA in 2002. About 350 jobs have been created, from crane operators to lab technicians.
The EPA ordered the removal of the worst PCB concentrations 12 years ago, following decades of technical and environmental review. There was extensive public debate about what would be best for the health of the river and its fish and wildlife, digging out the PCBs or leaving them in place. In the end, supporters of dredging won.
Dredging began in 2009 near the GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward that discharged the PCBs into the river between 1946 and 1977. The oily material was used by GE in its insulators.
The PCB-laced sediment is being removed from north to south, meaning the worst-contaminated sections of the river were done first. There was “shoreline to shoreline” dredging upstream of Schuylerville, which has given way to “strategic dredging” of specific “hot spots” downstream, Klawinski said.
This year’s work began in May just south of Schuylerville and will progress about 14 miles, past Stillwater to Halfmoon, before dredging stops for the season in November. To date, Behan said, GE has removed 310,000 cubic yards this season, nearly meeting EPA’s goal for the whole year of 350,000 cubic yards.
“The dredging has gone well, and GE is extremely proud of what has been accomplished,” Behan said.
In-river work should end with sections south of Mechanicville in 2015, though Klawinski acknowledged some of the most logistically difficult areas — like spots behind hydroelectric dams — has been saved for last.
The dredging crews, contractors hired by GE, work 24 hours a day, six days a week, taking only Sundays off.
Loaded 200-foot barges make what is currently a 10-hour trip upriver to a processing facility in Fort Edward. One or two barges a day make the trip, pushed by heavy tugboats. The PCB-laden material is dewatered at the processing site, then shipped by rail to out-of-state hazardous material landfills.
Aboard the dredges, computers and GPS guidance tell operators where to scoop and how deep to go. A small boat takes core samples afterward, to check that the PCBs have been successfully removed.
On the river between Stillwater and Schaghticoke, work teams have been removing water chestnut — an invasive species no one wants to see spread downriver — before the PCB-removing clamshells arrive. Long-armed booms with smaller clamshells are used to reach PCBs in shallow areas, while larger scoops are used in the middle of the river.
Klawinski said more advanced science went into determining where PCBs are located than into the scoop-and-removal process being used. It’s basic dredging of a kind that’s been done in rivers and harbors for decades.
“I would say what we’re doing is the standard approach, standard equipment,” Klawinski said. “Sometimes, simple is the best way to get things done.”
Meanwhile, in areas already dredged, contractors have started vegetation restoration, replacing wetlands and sub-aquatic plants,
“We’re putting in hundreds of thousands of plants,” Klawinski said, “enough to get nature restarted, so they can repopulate.”
Years of monitoring lie ahead, he said, to make sure natural vegetation returns.
The plan is that the Fort Edward processing facility will be decommissioned in 2016, though local officials like Wood and Richardson want it to remain open in case a navigational dredging agreement is reached. It’s likely even areas not labeled as “hot spots” contain enough PCBs to require some treatment.
Behan said GE is aware of conversations about navigational dredging, but its focus remains on the environmental dredging, “which is the only project approved for the river.”
The state Canal Corp., which operates the Champlain Canal, declined comment last week on whether it had approached GE about additional dredging.
“Navigational dredging is the responsibility of New York state and the Canal Corp., but it seems as though something could be worked out,” Wood said.
Despite the concerns, Behan said the upper Hudson remains navigable, pointing to its use by the heavy dredging barges.
There are about 6,000 acres of floodplain in Saratoga and Washington counties than could have been contaminated by the river’s nearly annual flooding. Klawinski said the EPA and GE are talking about what needs to be done, but it’s likely years of testing lie ahead to determine what soils need burial or removal.
“We have a pretty good idea what’s going on in the floodplains, but we need a lot more data,” Klawinski said.
Behan said thousands of samples have already been taken, and most found undetectable levels of PCBs. But he acknowledged more will need to be done.
The soil caps GE has already placed at some contaminated floodplain locations are regarded as a temporary solution, both the EPA and GE agree.
“It could be five years before we have an idea what the remedies will be,” Klawinski said.
Tim Havens of Hudson Falls, president of the dredging-opposition group CEASE, said it has taken on more of a watchdog role since the work started. CEASE members continue to believe the river would have naturally cleaned itself, over time burying the PCBs under new sediment.
“There's been inconveniences,” Havens said. “The on-river complaints have been about noise, but it really hasn't been terrible.”
Havens said CEASE's earlier push for regulators to put limits on noise, light and odor from the work have helped.
“Our advocacy did enormous good for the community,” he said.
CEASE was formed in 1980, when the EPA's original plan called for burying the PCBs in Fort Edward. That plan generated enough citizen opposition that it was killed in favor of shipping the PCBs elsewhere.