SARATOGA SPRINGS — If the public sentiment at a meeting Wednesday night is any indication, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should order more dredging of the Hudson River to remove toxic PCBs.
“I am beyond heartsick at the state of this magnificent resource which has been damaged by corporate greed,” Sarah Todd of Fort Edward said.
“The data does not support the claim that this remedy will be protective of the environment,” said Althea Mullarkey, an analyst with the environmental group Scenic Hudson. “You continue to overestimate the impact on fish and underestimate the impact of additional remediation.”
Scenic Hudson and other groups point out that the current dredging hasn’t reduced PCB levels in fish as much as expected in the lower part of the river, below the Troy Dam, where contamination is generally lower than it is in the upper part of the river.
“We want to make the goal not in 100 years, not in 50 years, but as soon as possible,” Richard Webster, a legal analyst with Riverkeeper. “What the EPA has done is not enough. It’s a good start, but it doesn’t complete the job.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation believes more work is needed.
“DEC disagrees with EPA’s conclusions that the remedy is protective. DEC believes the levels of PCBs are too high,” said Kevin Farrar, the project manager for DEC, reading from a DEC position paper that was greeted with applause.
“We want the river back. We want to be able to use the river the way we used to use it,” Saratoga Town Supervisor Tom Wood said. “I think you know, that we know, there are parts of the river that were overlooked. ... It needs to be restored for navigational dredging.”
A little over 100 people attended the meeting held at the Saratoga Hilton.
The EPA has declared that the $1.7 billion project that removed 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil from a 40-mile stretch of the river was a success, even though it will be decades before the fish from the river will be safe to eat, because fish have absorbed some of the PCBs.
The PCBs — or polychlorinated biphenyls, an industrial chemical suspected of causing cancer — were discharged from General Electric plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward between 1946 and 1977, when PCBs were banned. The EPA ordered GE to dredge the river in 2002, and work took place between 2009 and 2015, with GE paying the bill. The dredging treatment plant in Fort Edward has since been dismantled.
Hudson River environmental groups generally believe that the project has left too many PCBs in the river, although the EPA has declared it worked well. The EPA says about 72 percent of all the PCBs in the river were removed.
The EPA is currently conducting a mandatory five-year review of the Superfund project. While the report has initially declared the dredging has worked as intended, it will continue taking public comment on the review through Sept. 1. The meeting was the second, following a well-attended meeting last month in Poughkeepsie.
“There are two phases to the project, dredging and then monitored natural attenuation,” said Gary Klawinski, EPA’s project director.
He said the EPA isn’t yet ready to declare the project a success, though it isn’t ordering any more dredging. “We really need to collect more data,” he said.
“What we’re asking is whether the remedy is working as intended, and whether the conditions are what could reasonably be expected.”
There are state-issued advisories against eating fish from the river because of the contamination. The EPA currently estimates it will be 55 years before PCB levels in fish will be safe to eat on a weekly basis, although within 15 years they believe it will be safe to eat fish once every two months.
“We don’t believe dredging more would significantly affect fish recovery time,” Klawinski said.
The concept of more dredging is supported, however, by a majority of local elected officials.
“This is not debatable,” Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen said. “I think the EPA is making a mistake. They are slacking off.”
“We have the right to a clean river,” said state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, who represents the majority of communities where dredging occurred, and who brought a petition signed by a bipartisan group of 50 legislators. “It has affected property values, it has affected small businesses, it has affected the ability to attract more tourism to the region.”
Woerner said a 50-year wait to be able to eat fish from the river is unacceptable. “The time span is much longer than was originally anticipated,” she said.
But one town supervisor offered a more moderate view.
“The science behind it is the most important thing, and the science takes a long time,” said Stillwater Town Supervisor Edward Kinowski.
Andy Bicking, policy director at Scenic Hudson, said the EPA’s findings are flawed.
“The Hudson is among the largest and most visible Superfund sites in the country, and as such it sets a precedent for what is going to happen across the country,” he said.
Klawinski said the EPA will continue to collect data on the river, and is separately working with GE to study the amount of cleanup that will need to be done in the river’s floodplains.
“It is difficult, unfortunately, to get all the contamination out,” Klawinski said.
People can submit written comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or the EPA Hudson River Field Office, 187 Wolf Road, Suite 303, Albany NY 12205.