GE to Sample PCB Levels in Lower Hudson

A crew dredges the Upper Hudson in 2016 to remove sediment polluted with PCBs.

A crew dredges the Upper Hudson in 2016 to remove sediment polluted with PCBs. (photo by Ned Sullivan/Scenic Hudson)   

Environmental groups say testing is overdue, inadequate 

Nearly 40 years after the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River as one of the most heavily polluted sites in the country because of chemical dumping by General Electric, the company will begin testing the water in the Lower Hudson, including in the Highlands, to determine the extent of the damage.

From 1947 to 1977, GE discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from two of its manufacturing plants on the Upper Hudson. In addition to essentially ending commercial fishing in the Hudson, the discharges kicked off decades of legal battles. The EPA repeatedly dragged GE into court to force the company to clean up the river.

GE dredged the Upper Hudson for six years, from 2009 to 2015, to remove contaminated sediment, although environmental groups asserted that the cleanups would be ineffective because they didn’t target the most polluted parts of the river and because of faulty data. 

Scenic Hudson and others argue that the targets given to GE are based on measurements of the pollution in 2002 that were later found to be inaccurate because of what Manna Jo Greene of Clearwater described in 2017 as a “false bottom” of debris from lumber and paper mills at the river basin near Fort Edwards. Once that material was removed by dredging, she said, readings in 2010 found the levels of PCBs to be two to three times higher. Greene suggested the EPA was reluctant to adjust the targets because it feared GE would launch a protracted legal battle. “They took the path of least resistance,” she said.

A 2018 report confirmed concerns about the cleanup, showing that PCB levels in the Upper Hudson had not decreased nearly as much as anticipated and that levels in the Lower Hudson — from Troy to Manhattan — had not decreased. 

The report led to calls for more extensive sampling of the Lower Hudson.

There is also concern that a project to bury a power line in the river — including a stretch through the Highlands — as part of a transmission system from Canada to New York City will stir up more PCBs, although the company doing the work said it will be non-intrusive.

The EPA is expected to release an update of its review of the cleanup within the next two months. At a public meeting on May 24, Gary Klawinski, an EPA representative, explained the sampling program. Although it was designed and will be carried out by GE, it will be monitored by the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Sharing a photo of a boat, Klawinski said, “If you see a boat on the river that looks like that, that’s us [collecting sediment]. If you see a boat next to that boat [with people watching], that’s the EPA or the DEC.”

Klawinski said GE will sample at five sites in the Lower Hudson, including Newburgh. 

In the meantime, the groups that criticized the GE cleanup for not being targeted or extensive enough are saying the same things about the testing. Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper say it won’t provide enough useful information about the distribution of PCBs and other contaminants. 

The agency “should be moving forward with a real investigation and feasibility study” because its current strategy will not get it “any closer to what you need to know,” said Audrey Friedrichsen of Scenic Hudson. “It’s just more delay.”

Drew Gamils of Riverkeeper noted that the groups believe five sampling sites spaced 50 miles apart aren’t enough because the Lower Hudson is a far larger and more complex ecosystem than the Upper Hudson. There’s the freshwater section above Poughkeepsie, the saltwater section near New York City and Westchester, and the brackish Highlands in which the salt and freshwater meet. There are also various bays and floodplains.

“The Lower Hudson is more tidal and it’s much wider, which leads to much more variation in habitat in that 160-mile stretch,” she said. 

The groups also would like to see what’s known as an angler’s survey — who’s fishing in the Lower Hudson, what they’re catching and what they’re eating — which hasn’t been done since 1990.

“There are people still subsistence-fishing out of the river, and using what they catch to supplement their tables for their family,” said Friedrichsen. “They’ve changed as new people move into the valley, and the fish that they’re eating have changed.”

The EPA has issued advisories stating that, because of PCB contamination, only healthy adult males should eat fish from the Hudson, and only once a month. But Friedrichsen said more research is needed to determine if some species are more contaminated than others. EPA rules “say that the polluter pays and the polluter is supposed to eliminate the risk,” she said. “Instead, this places the burden on already overburdened environmental-justice communities.”

In response to the group’s concerns, Klawinski said the initial sampling this summer could lead to more extensive and thorough tests in coming years. 

“We need this information to make decisions about what should happen next,” he said at the meeting. “So it’s important for us to collect this data quickly, and then assess and determine what the next steps are, including looking to see whether there are certain portions of the Lower Hudson River that need to be categorized separately so that they can be addressed as quickly as possible.”

Leave a Reply

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. All online comments are moderated, must include your full name and may appear in print. See our guidelines here.