General Electric will start shutting down its PCB processing facility in Fort Edward this fall as its long-running $1 billion dredging project comes to an end — a blow to environmental organizations that hoped the plant could be kept open for future Hudson River dredging.
While actual decommissioning of the riverside facility where barges are unloaded and contaminated material dewatered won’t happen until 2016, the associated equipment can start being removed as soon as dredging concludes this fall, said Gary Klawinski, project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s always been part of the plan negotiated between GE and the EPA, he told a meeting of the Hudson River PCB Superfund Community Advisory Board Thursday in Schuylerville.
But that information didn’t sit well with environmental groups that have held a number of events this year, hoping GE will clean additional sections of the river or reach a deal with the state Canal Corp. for navigational dredging of the Champlain Canal — which runs into the river — in areas that will continue to have PCB contamination.
“We didn’t expect that while they are still in the river dredging they are removing valuable equipment,” said Abigail Jones, a staff attorney with Riverkeeper.
GE is in the final year of a six-year EPA-supervised dredging operation — the largest such environmental cleanup ever attempted — which is removing 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river between Hudson Falls and Troy. The PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls, a suspected human carcinogen — were discharged from GE plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward from 1946 through 1977, when such discharges were unregulated.
GE officials have consistently said they are living up to their agreement with the EPA and have no plans for additional dredging, though some PCBs will remain in the river.
The final piece of dredging is now occurring at Quack Island, in the river near the Lock 2 dam between Halfmoon and Schaghticoke. Klawinski said the site presents physical challenges, but work should be completed by mid- to late-October. The material is transported by barge to the Fort Edward facility for processing and shipment by rail to out-of-state landfills.
The EPA is reviewing a decommissioning plan for the facility, but demobilization can start as soon as dredging ends, Klawinski said.
“I think the deeper question is, what’s the rush?” said Manna Jo Greene of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. “A lot of people do not agree. Is the public going to benefit or be harmed by what would be a preventive decision?”
She said the EPA, Canal Corp. and other state agencies should be talking about keeping the facility open.
But not everyone on the Community Advisory Board agrees that more dredging is a good idea.
Crop farmer Andrew Squire of Easton said he lost roughly $10,000 in strawberries to a late frost this spring because problems with muck in a water intake on the river — a problem he blames on dredging work — prevented him from drawing water to spray on the strawberries to protect the fruit. He appealed to both GE and the EPA for damages, but was turned down. Klawinski said EPA doesn’t believe the problem was project-related.
Former Fort Edward town supervisor Merrilyn Pulver agreed Squire suffered damages, and said the impacts on communities where dredging has occurred since 2009 have been significant.
“GE has proved their ability to get the job done with the EPA watching, the whole world watching,” she said. “I want to say that the impacts are real, very real.”
But even as dredging work concludes, the EPA is studying what needs to be done about any PCB contamination on the river’s floodplains. GE is paying $20 million for a feasibility study that will begin this fall.
The affected area has about 6,000 acres in floodplains, with some of the widest floodplains between Schylerville and Stillwater.
GE officials have said the remedies — whether burying contamination or removing it — won’t require the decontamination processing facility.