General Electric Co. used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the manufacture of electrical equipment in its Hudson Falls/Fort Edward plants beginning in the 1940’s and ending in 1977.
An estimated 1.3 million pounds of the chemical was discharged into the Hudson River during this 30-year period. The discharge was not illegal under the regulations of that day. Many companies and municipalities discharged wastewater that was minimally treated, or not treated at all, during that period of time.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), created in 1970, unknowingly became part of the problem.
The DEC issued a permit to remove a derelict dam a few miles down river from the Hudson Falls/Fort Edward plants in 1973. The DEC regulators thought a dam removal project that would restore the river to natural conditions was good idea.
But natural river conditions no longer existed, as sediment had collected in the pool behind the old dam. Unknown at the time, the sediments behind the dam had trapped a great percentage of the PCBs discharged from the GE plants.
The removal of the dam caused the sediment with the PCB contamination to rapidly move down river. The resulting mess quickly became obvious to local and state authorities.
But what to do about it was an unanswered question. GE did nothing illegal. The utility owning the dam, (Niagara Mohawk, as I recall) had a state DEC permit to remove the structure. The state had no authority to do anything, and the local municipalities could only complain about the mess.
Two years later (1979) a major flood, the Floyd event, occurred in the Hudson basin. That flood endangered a bridge over the Hudson at Troy and moved a tremendous amount of sediment — spreading the PCB contamination as far south as New York City.
The window of opportunity to clean up the PCB mess at a relatively low cost was past after that flooding event. Every spring runoff or high water event moved or buried the PCB contamination, making it more difficult and expensive to clean up as time passed. Perhaps 10 years passed before the DEC and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seriously began to address the issue.
I was asked to serve on the committee evaluating proposals for clean-up, as I had experience in dredging huge volumes of sand to rebuild the Rockaway beach near New York City.
Everyone understood that the river environment had been badly damaged from the PCB discharge. Fish and wildlife tested with disturbing levels of PCBs in body tissue. In response to the health issue, the DEC prohibited taking and consuming fish from an extensive reach of the river.
In the early 1990s, there was considerable debate as to whether dredging should be attempted, as high water events over the years had scattered PCB contamination through the entire 200-mile length of the river system. It was easily agreed that a “cleanup should be limited to areas of high PCB concentration.
Areas of low concentration would be ignored.
In addition, if dredging was a solution in areas of high PCB concentrations, there was concern over resuspension of PCBs with a dredging program. It was agreed that the focus of a “cleanup” be limited to a 40-mile reach downstream to the federal dam at Troy.
A comprehensive testing program lead the EPA in February of 2002 to issue a Record of Decision mandating GE to fund a dredging program of PCB “hot spots” in the 40-mile stretch of the river channel.
“Hot spots” were defined as areas of high levels of PCB contamination. That decision settled the dredging question.
However, that decision led to another problem. What to do with an estimated 2.7 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment. No local official wanted the dredged material deposited in their jurisdiction.
The fact that numerous unsecured landfills and Superfund sites are scattered throughout the eastern section of the state was not relative to the fear of depositing Hudson River dredging locally. The decision was made to move the sediment out of state.
Initially, the sediment was moved by rail to west Texas, about 2,000 miles from eastern New York. As I researched this column, I learned that Hudson River sediment was also deposited in federally permitted sites in Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
I tried to determine the cost to transfer 2.7 million cubic yards of sediment such great distances, but I was unsuccessful. Surely, the transportation costs and energy necessary to move such volumes of sediment was high. Neither a representatives from GE or EPA could provide the transportation costs.
The “cleanup” is estimated to remove 65 percent of the PCBs discharged into the river. About 35 percent of 1.3 million pounds left in the river calculates out to be a big number. But the chemical is scattered over 200 miles of river channel. There are voices saying that GE must do more. It is not practical to “do more.” GE has fulfilled its obligations. Therefore, the treatment facilities should be dismantled.
In fact, GE, in agreement with the EPA, is studying PCB contamination on the flood plain. I was told that 5,000 soil samples were collected and are being analyzed to determine if further mitigation work is warranted.
To GE's credit, the company is doing more. Recently, GE has agreed with the EPA to study floodplain contamination. If soil tests suggest further mitigation, that work will be accomplished. But such work would not involve the treatment plant. Therefore it can be dismantled and the site restored.
As dredging concludes, habitat restoration accomplished, and project monitoring begins, we must not expect a “quick fix” to the fishery.
It will take many years for flora and fauna to adjust to the massive removal of sediment.
But the PCB contamination in the fishery will slowly decline and eventually the DEC will lift the regulations prohibiting consumption of fish in that reach of the river.