Putnam Legislature Backs Wide PCB Removal, Bans Polystyrene in County Facilities

Also approves Arts Council awards to Philipstown groups

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The Putnam County Legislature sounded a decidedly “green” tone last week, unanimously backing a wide-ranging cleanup of hazardous PCBs in the Hudson River and banning polystyrene (synthetic foam) dinnerware from county government premises and programs.

In other action at its formal monthly meeting Wednesday night (March 4) in Carmel, the legislature approved Putnam Arts Council grants to several Philipstown organizations.

PCB removal

The PCB measure referred to an ongoing concern, the repercussions of General Electric’s dumping of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, into the river from 1947–77. PCBs, which can taint drinking water and accumulate in fish, birds and other creatures, have been linked to cancer and liver and kidney disorders, as well as to neurological problems and cognitive mind-related disabilities.

The resolution crafted by the legislators, all Republicans, refers to PCBs as a threat both environmentally and economically, since, it declares, they not only are found in nearly 200 miles of river, soils and floodplains, but have devastated Hudson commercial fishing, wrecked use of the Champlain Canal for shipping, and endangered Hudson Valley tourism.

After protracted controversy, in 2009 GE began dredging to remove the PCBs, expecting to finish this year and focusing in particular on a stretch of river deemed the most critical. Federal agencies and the State of New York have warned, and the county resolution states, that “failure to apply the more stringent criteria” to two other stretches of river would leave “a series of Superfund-caliber sites” and that insufficient scouring brings the high “likelihood of remediated areas becoming re-contaminated.”

“We’re just asking GE to further extend this cleanup to include other areas,” explained Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown and chairs the committee that prepared the resolution.

The resolution asserts that “the current scope” of cleanup “will not restore the Hudson River to its former ecological health and the continued presence of highly contaminated sediments in the Upper Hudson will prevent the revival of long-dormant economic opportunities for both the Upper and Lower Hudson communities.”

The measure therefore calls on GE to “dredge all areas of PCB-contaminated sediments” in the remaining two sections of river; “conduct any additional necessary removal of soils and sediments in PCB-contaminated ‘hot spots’ in and around the Upper Hudson, including cleanup of the Champlain Canal,” and “complete a … robust cleanup” of floodplains “to restore the river to its full health and value as a natural and economic resource.”

The legislature plans to send the resolution to GE’s chairman and CEO; members of the U.S. Congress from Hudson River districts; three federal agencies; and state officials.

Before the vote, Legislature Chairman Carl Albano said that “the removal of PCBs was questionable in the beginning” but that efforts had proven themselves and “it was done very effectively in large areas. So I would very much be in favor of going to the next step.” His colleagues agreed.

Polystyrene ban

Capping a year of discussion, the legislature banned polystyrene dinnerware from departments and functions, including the Office for Senior Resources, which runs a lunch program for elderly residents of Philipstown and other municipalities, and the Putnam County Golf Course. The ban takes effect June 1. It applies to such common items as disposable cups and plates made of polystyrene — often mislabeled “Styrofoam,” a name that refers to a trademarked Dow Chemical product.

The resolution states that polystyrene manufacturing “is among the largest creators of hazardous waste in the United States”; that the foam and is “a common environmental pollutant … non-biodegradable”; that alternate, biodegradable and “compostable” materials exist; and that use of such alternatives “will reduce the waste stream and reduce waste costs.”

Scuccimarra advocated the ban and, according to Legislator Kevin Wright, “certainly has done all the heavy lifting on this.” The American Chemistry Council, a national trade association that represents polystyrene manufacturers, sent a lobbyist to a recent legislative committee meeting to oppose the ban.

The polystyrene prohibition only covers county government facilities, not residents or private entities. “But we hope they will follow suit,” Legislator Ginny Nacerino observed.

Arts grants

The legislature approved disbursement of $11,000, awarded through the Putnam Arts Council, to a dozen recipients, including five operating in Philipstown. They are:

  • Collaborative Concepts, $700, for the fall sculpture and art festival at Saunders Farm in Garrison
  • Garrison Landing Association, $700, for the Aery Theatre Company 20/20 One-Act Festival, a competition for local playwrights
  • Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, $1,400, to underwrite free or discounted tickets for local families and for pre-performance educational workshops
  • Julia Butterfield Memorial Library, $700 for Sunday afternoon Host 4 Writers Reading events
  • Doansburg Chamber Ensemble, $1,000 for concerts that include performances at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring

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