SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is prepared to defend its decision to declare a critical part of the Hudson River PCB cleanup done, EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez said Tuesday.
“I understand there’s some contemplation of a lawsuit, and that’s OK; we expected there would be challenges," Lopez said at a meeting of the Hudson River PCB Superfund Site Community Advisory Group.
Lopez made his statements as New York state is believed to be close to following through on announced plans to sue the federal agency over its decision, announced April 11, to declare that General Electric's $1.7 billion dredging project is "complete."
The same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James announced that the state will sue the EPA, but the state has yet to follow through. Representatives of the Attorney General's Office were at Tuesday's meeting, but did not participate in the discussion.
The state contends that the river isn't yet sufficiently cleaned of the toxic PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- discharged by GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward between 1946 and 1977, when the substance was banned.
"The Hudson River is the lifeblood of communities from New York City to the Adirondacks but we know PCB levels remain unacceptably high in the riverbed and in fish," Cuomo said at the time. "Since the EPA has failed to hold GE accountable for fulfilling its obligation to restore the river, New York state will take any action necessary to protect our waterways and that includes suing the EPA to demand a full and complete remediation."
Tuesday's advisory group meeting at the Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center was its first since the EPA's decision was announced, and Lopez again tried to explain that a final decision that GE is "off the hook" is probably decades away.
Last month's announcement was simply acknowledgement that GE has lived up to the 2002 record of decision in which the EPA ordered dredging to remove PCB concentrations from a 40-mile stretch of the river between Hudson Falls and Troy, Lopez said.
GE contractors removed 2.75 million cubic yards of sediment from the river during dredging that lasted from 2009 to 2015. Of the 1.3 million pounds of PCBs released by GE, the EPA said, dredging recovered 310,000 pounds. Much of the rest likely washed out into the Atlantic Ocean, an EPA official said last month.
“I reviewed this with our attorney, with the state attorney general and [the state Department of Environmental Conservation]. We were compelled to issue the certificate, but GE is not off the hook," Lopez said. “We have the ability to re-open, and we reserve the right and ability ... to have that conversation.”
The EPA meanwhile continues to test fish and sediment samples drawn from both the upper and lower sections of the river, said Gary Klawinski, the EPA's project manager.
A separate but related project is taking samples from properties in the river's floodplain to determine whether there is contamination. More than 60 property owners have been sent letters because part of their properties contain PCBs, Klawinski said.
While temporary measures have been taken to seal PCBs on some of those properties, permanent solutions are years away. "We have several more years ahead of us of remedial investigation and then a record of decision will be developed," Klawinski said.
In Schuylerville, local officials are hoping to have more extensive testing of the historic Champlain Canal, a 19th-century navigation channel that is connected to the river. A bike trail is under construction along part of it as part of the statewide Empire State Trail plan, but tourism promoters want to be sure the canal is safe before promoting historic tourism there.
“We’re looking for enough information to implement an effective site-specific remediation," said Peter Goutos, an environmental engineer who represents the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce on the advisory group.
“Where PCBs get in the way of projects potentially moving forward, we are going to address that," Klawinski responded.
Officials with DEC and the state Health Department also re-emphasized that people should not eat fish from the Hudson because of the contamination. Some reports have said it's safe to eat striped bass caught in the lower level, but officials at Tuesday's meeting discouraged that.
"For virtually every fish for every location on the Hudson River, eat none of it," said Kevin Farrar, a DEC remediation scientist.