New questions on effectiveness of river cleanup

By Brian PJ Cronin

After removing 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the Upper Hudson River, General Electric insists its work is over. But an analysis of samples collected after the cleanup may bring the company back to the river.

Since 2009, GE has been forced to spend billions of dollars to remove the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) its factories discharged into the river from 1947 to 1977.

At the end of 2015, GE told the federal Environmental Protection Agency its work was complete, and a preliminary report issued by the EPA in the summer of 2017 determined that no further dredging would be necessary or effective. But the agency declined to legally declare the cleanup to be complete.

Now, an analysis of samples collected by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation shows that the areas GE dredged have concentrations of PCBs above what is considered by federal guidelines to be acceptable. The lower Hudson, which includes the Highlands, was not dredged and continues to have the same amount of PCBs as before the cleanup, suggesting that the dredging of the upper river had a negligent effect on the lower Hudson, including the waters passing by the Highlands.

Dredging the Hudson River to remove sediment polluted with PCBs (File photo by Ned Sullivan/Scenic Hudson)

The culprit appears to be so-called “hot spots” of polluted sediment that were not in the original dredging zone, some of which are fewer than 100 feet from the dredged areas. For years, environmental groups have argued that the initial analysis that the EPA used to determine where and how much to dredge did not accurately measure the extent of the contamination. State agencies such as the DEC and federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also warned that the hot spots should be addressed.

“The only reasonable conclusion is that the dredged areas have been contaminated by PCB-laden sediment from non-dredged areas located nearby,” said Remy Hennet of S.S. Papadopulos & Associates, who conducted the study.

Hayley Carlock, the director of environmental advocacy for Scenic Hudson, which has closely monitored the cleanup, said the testing should be showing nearly undetectable levels of PCBs in the dredged areas.

“The fact that they’re now very elevated, not quite as much as they were before, but still much higher than most PCB Superfund sites throughout the U.S., is alarming,” she said. “It demonstrates that those highly contaminated hotspots of PCBs just feet away from the areas that were dredged that were not touched is what led to recontamination, which shouldn’t be a surprise once we discovered the greater extent of the contamination in the upper river.”

“You could go down the road of ‘I told you so,’ ” said Erin Doran, a senior attorney at Riverkeeper. “But what everyone is more interested in is the EPA stepping up and making GE take some action. It’s clear that more work needs to be done.”

Getting GE back on the river is the first step, but Doran said there’s still the matter of the lower Hudson.

A view of the Hudson River from Breakneck (File photo by Brian PJ Cronin)

“The rest of the river isn’t responding to the cleanup,” she said. “We’re asking for a full investigation as to whether and how GE needs to remediate the 150 miles south of the Troy Dam.”

For now, all eyes are on the EPA, which is tardy in issuing the final version of its latest five-year review of the project. Since releasing a preliminary version last summer — the one that stated no more dredging would be done — the agency has been working more closely with state officials. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made it clear that if the EPA issues a “certificate of completion” to GE without additional work being done, the state will sue.

Carlock said that would be unfortunate because “litigation is time intensive and expensive. But if we have to go there again, all options are on the table — whatever will get the Hudson cleaned up to the greatest extent as quickly as possible.”

The EPA says its goal is “a comprehensive understanding of the data” and to “develop joint findings and conclusions” with the state. “It is important to the public and communities throughout the Hudson Valley that EPA and NYSDEC collaborate as agencies and give this the attention it deserves,” said a representative of the EPA’s Region 2 office.

Doran said the EPA’s increased willingness to work with the state is a cause for cautious optimism, although there’s still a lot that will need to happen in order to compel GE to continue the cleanup. “We certainly hope that happens, and we’re more hopeful now,” she said.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Skidmore College graduate has reported for The Current since 2014 and writes the "Out There" column. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Areas of Expertise: Environment, outdoors