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EPA once again will assess PCB cleanup of the Hudson River

The EPA will once again assess the effectiveness of dredging to remove PCBs from the Hudson River. The EPA will once again assess the effectiveness of dredging to remove PCBs from the Hudson River. Times Union file photo

Posted on April 20, 2022

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has started its third five-year review of PCB cleanup in the Hudson River, a move that may reignite the dispute between New York state and federal officials as well as General Electric Co. over the health of the river and what should be done about it.

New York officials have in the past maintained that more dredging may be needed to fully eliminate potentially toxic PCBs, especially in the upper Hudson above Troy. But GE has disagreed and the EPA said more information is needed.

During their second five-year review, completed in 2019, the EPA concluded that more data from fish tissue needed to be gathered before deciding if the cleanup has been adequate.

Because the Hudson River is a Superfund site, reviews are mandated every five years to ensure environmental cleanups are working as intended and have protected human health and the environment.

“As we continue our work to monitor and assess the upper Hudson, move forward with the Hudson River floodplain investigation and evaluate how best to assess the lower Hudson, EPA is committed to continuing to fully engage our state and federal partners,” EPA Regional Administrator Lisa Garcia said in a prepared statement.

The latest study will also look at PCB removal in floodplain areas along the upper Hudson as well as fish tissue.

Back when it was allowed, GE between the 1940s and 1970s discharged PCBs into the Hudson from its two former capacitor plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls.

But as worries about toxicity increased, the dumping ceased and the EPA in 2002 ordered the company to dredge approximately 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river between Fort Edward and Troy.
The dredging took place between 2009 and 2015.

Lowering PCB levels in fish tissue was the key objective of the dredging.

Advocates at the Riverkeeper environmental group, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other groups back in 2016 argued that more cleanup was required in the upper Hudson.

“The job is not done,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said at the time.  “We definitely wanted more dredging,” said Chris Bellovary, a staff attorney with the Riverkeeper group.

That dispute led to a 2019 lawsuit in which DEC opposed the EPA’s conclusion that GE’s dredging work was completed.

The state lost that lawsuit but the court concluded more dredging might be needed if new information becomes available.
That’s one of the reasons why the five-year studies are important.

Currently the DEC is doing its own research and agency officials said they will comment when the latest five-year study is completed, probably next year.

“DEC will continue to engage EPA and the community through the Community Advisory Group and, upon release of the five-year report later this year, DEC will provide comments following our thorough review,” the agency said in a prepared statement.

GE still maintains their dredging in the upper Hudson is essentially completed.

“The comprehensive dredging project GE completed in the upper Hudson in 2016 removed the vast majority of PCBs. Since then, as part of our continuing cooperation with EPA, GE has collected voluminous data on water, sediment and fish to help the regulatory agencies assess the results of the cleanup. We are proud of our contribution to a cleaner Hudson and will continue to work with EPA, New York state and local communities on other Hudson-related projects, including the study of environmental conditions in the floodplains and the cleanup of our plant sites,” the company said in a prepared statement.

One issue is the speed with which the upper Hudson has recovered after the dredging. Bellovary said the dredging has improved the river’s health but not as fast as the EPA had predicted.

Pete Lopez, a former EPA administrator who is now executive director of policy advocacy and science at Scenic Hudson, agrees. His group is calling for a “restoration dredge” of the upper Hudson.

“The whole purpose is to reduce damage to wildlife and to speed up the recovery,” said Lopez.

Lopez and Bellovary both noted that the state Department of Health still has an advisory against consuming too much fish from the Hudson.

Environmentalists will also be interested in another aspect of this third five-year study since it will look at the lower Hudson River, or the tidal portion between Troy and New York City, as well as the upper Hudson.

“What we’re really pushing for at this point is an investigation of the lower river,” said Bellovary.

Scientists will examine water and sediment samples as well as fish tissue from three species he said: black bass, yellow perch and channel catfish.

And while the EPA anticipates the third five-year review report will be completed by spring 2023, it will likely take longer to develop statistically valid conclusions about overall PCB levels in the fish, said Bellovary and the DEC.


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