hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2018


State, watchdogs urge more work on PCBs

Reports suggest high levels of contamination remain in Hudson River


New studies show the upper Hudson River, seen from North River Road in Fort Edward, remains burdened by PCB pollution despite completion of a seven-year, $1.7 billion cleanup Joan K. Lentini photoNew studies show the upper Hudson River, seen from North River Road in Fort Edward, remains burdened by PCB pollution despite completion of a seven-year, $1.7 billion cleanup. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


A series of new federal and state reports appear to show that the Hudson River remains heavily contaminated with PCBs, despite the efforts of a dredging project that took seven years and cost $1.7 billion to complete.

The federal Superfund cleanup, which ended in 2015, was paid for and carried out by General Electric Co., whose factories dumped PCBs into the river decades ago. The company says it has met the requirements set in advance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for removing contaminated sediments from the river, and it has asked the EPA to certify that the cleanup is complete.

But other federal agencies, the state government and environmental groups are insisting that the cleanup is by no means done. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has even threatened to sue the EPA if it gives GE its requested certificate of completion.

“The studies show there are significant amounts of PCBs and hot spots from GE” still in the river, said Cliff Weathers, communications director for the Hudson River environmental group Riverkeeper. “A lot of areas haven’t been investigated yet.”

Weathers said data in an EPA review covering 2012-17 show the cleanup has not yet met its federally mandated goal of protecting human and environmental health.
“The EPA says it will be protective,” he said. “But it should be protective by now.”


Decades of pollution
From 1947 to 1977, when the federal government banned the use of the chemicals, GE discharged an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson from its plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of oily chemicals that are stable at high temperatures, which made them useful in heat-producing electrical equipment.
But their stability also means PCBs don’t break down in the environment, and they work their way into the food chain. PCBs accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals, birds and people that consume PCB-contaminated fish. The chemicals, which the EPA says are probably carcinogens, increase in concentration as they move up the food chain.

The risk to human health ruined what had been a $40 million commercial fishery in the Hudson River. State health advisories restrict some parts of the river to catch-and-release fishing only. Women and children under 15 are warned to eat no fish from the Hudson, while men are advised to eat no more than one to four servings per month of some species, depending on where they were taken. Consumption of other species is banned completely.

Because of PCB contamination, the Hudson River was declared a federal Superfund site in 1984. Studies in the 1990s led to the EPA issuing a “record of decision” in 2002 that found GE responsible for the contamination and described what GE needed to do to clean it up. In 2006, GE consented to the EPA’s order to dredge contaminated sediments from certain areas of the river between Hudson Falls and the Federal Dam in Troy.

The dredging project began in 2009 and was completed in 2015. In December 2016, GE asked the EPA to grant it a certificate of completion, which would effectively relieve it of any further responsibility for cleanup. The EPA had 365 days to comply or reject the request.
Critics say there was evidence even before the dredging started that the EPA had underestimated the contamination, and that the project as designed wouldn’t achieve the goal of restoring the river.

The record of decision “relied on flawed modeling rather than actual sample data,” Cuomo said in a Dec. 13 press release. The EPA had expected that PCB contamination in fish would drop rapidly after specified areas were dredged, but the governor said that hasn’t happened and, without additional cleanup, the federal agency’s goals “will not be met.”


Repairing natural resources
Under federal Superfund law, the EPA appointed three government agencies to act as trustees of the river’s natural resources, with the task of measuring the damage PCBs had caused in the river and recommending how to restore it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has jurisdiction over coastal and marine resources, which include the Hudson. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, an agency of the Interior Department, has expertise in pollution’s effects on fish and wildlife. The third agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, is responsible for New York’s publicly held natural resources, including rivers and wildlife.

In 2010, NOAA released a study showing PCBs were indeed spread over a wider area and at higher concentrations than had previously been thought.

“That was an alarm bell for us, that the EPA-ordered cleaning wasn’t good enough,” said Andy Bicking, director of public policy for the environmental group Scenic Hudson. “There were PCBs outside the designated cleanup areas. Some were quite close to the cleanup areas, but the contractors couldn’t dredge there.”

The state had its own doubts about the cleanup plan. It asked the EPA to do sediment sampling in the cleanup area after the dredging was done, but the EPA refused. In the summer of 2017, DEC scientists collected about 1,800 samples at a cost of $2 million.

The Fish & Wildlife Service looked at PCB levels in fish and wildlife and how animals might be affected. In one study, feeding fish with typical Hudson River PCB levels to female minks injured the minks and resulted in 20 percent mortality in their kits. The agency also studied waterfowl, fish, frogs, bats and other small mammals.

In a letter she sent in December to the EPA, Kathryn Jahn, the Interior Department’s Hudson River case manager, said more PCB removal and habitat restoration is needed to speed the river’s recovery.

“We continue to be concerned about the significant PCB contamination left in the Hudson River, the time expected for the Hudson River ecosystem to recover from that contamination, and the adverse impact of that contamination upon the wildlife, natural resources, and the public that uses these resources,” Jahn wrote in her letter to Gary Klawinski, the director of the EPA’s Hudson River field office.

Adding to the evidence, NOAA reported on Jan. 31 that its analysis of more than 100,000 samples of river water, collected from 1975 through 2014, showed PCB levels consistently exceeding allowable state and federal limits, “through all parts of the river and for every year sampled.”

In many cases, the agency said, PCB levels were “hundreds of times higher” than acceptable levels.

“All applicable standards have been exceeded at least once, and most standards were exceeded numerous times,” the NOAA report said.


Wider review planned
On Jan. 29, the EPA announced that its scientists plan to assist the DEC in evaluating data from the state’s 2017 sediment samples. The federal agency also said it will continue studies of floodplain contamination in the upper river and expand ongoing sampling programs south of Albany.

The announcement added that the EPA would consider information from the natural resources trustees and from the state attorney general before ruling on GE’s request for a certificate of completion. It set no date for that ruling.

GE maintains that it’s met all its obligations and should be allowed to close out the project.
“As EPA confirmed in a report last May, and as the data clearly and unequivocally demonstrate, the Hudson River dredging project is achieving the EPA’s goals of protecting public health and the environment,” GE spokesman Mark Behan said in a written statement. “The dredging project removed the vast majority of PCBs in the upper Hudson, as the agency had directed, and PCB levels in water declined sharply as expected.”

The Hudson River trustees dispute that.

“PCBs in the river continue to cause harm,” said Margaret Byrne, the Hudson River assessment and restoration manager for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She said injuries to the river, including advisories against eating its fish, “will exist into the future because of the residual PCBs.”

“The work to date has been remedial,” Byrne said. “The trustees are still in the process of injury assessment. Restoration scoping is the next step.”

Jahn’s letter expressed the Fish & Wildlife Service’s belief that “restoration should occur under the EPA’s residual authority,” Byrne said.

If GE did more dredging now, Byrne added, “it would certainly accelerate recovery.”


Protecting health, environment
In 2015, NOAA issued a fact sheet with an updated estimate of how quickly PCB levels were likely to fall. Based on an analysis of more than 8,000 sediment samples, the agency found that surface sediments were much more contaminated than the EPA assumed when GE consented to the 2006 cleanup order -- and that the river’s natural recovery rate was much slower.

Unless more PCBs were removed, “reaching human health thresholds will take decades longer” than the EPA predicted, the agency concluded.

Weathers, of Riverkeeper, said that despite health warnings, surveys show that people, especially low-income people, continue to catch Hudson River fish to feed their families.
“We want dredging to continue,” Weathers said.

He added that “there are Superfund-sized hotspots still in the river” that were found after the 2002 record of decision.

“We’re asking that cleanup be completed and all contaminated areas be remediated by dredging,” Weathers said, adding that the goal should be “no restrictions” on eating fish caught in the river.

“That would protect the environment and human health,” he said.
Bicking, of Scenic Hudson, said collaboration between the EPA and DEC “is a good move.”
“We agree with Governor Cuomo that the certificate of completion should not be an issue,” Bicking said. “The protective policy goals haven’t been met. The DEC samples demonstrate that.”

In Scenic Hudson’s view, the DEC has been more focused on results while the EPA is focused on completing the 2002 cleanup plan.

But that plan “is flawed,” Bicking said. “If your plan is flawed, you need to change the plan. People can’t enjoy the Hudson and can’t take advantage of its economic potential, largely because of the economic ball and chain of the PCBs in the river.”

If the EPA takes the evidence seriously and addresses the remaining contaminated areas, Bicking said, “that promise of a restored resource becomes more real.”