PCBs in the Hudson River: The Rehabilitation of a Superfund Site

By Maggie Hankins

For centuries, the Hudson River has been well documented as one of the most important natural features in northeastern American history. Having been closely monitored almost continuously for the past 25 years, the Hudson now exists as one of the most extensively studied rivers in the country (EPA 2013A). Unfortunately, a major force driving this monitoring is the need to examine the results of deleterious anthropogenic influences on the Hudson. During the Industrial Revolution, the proliferation of factories along the river created communities and promoted economic growth, but the pollution created by these enterprises has become an increasingly significant threat to the river’s ecosystem and the local populations.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), for example, are a group of organic chemicals widely used in transformers and capacitors because of their ability to withstand incredibly high temperatures (Strayer 2012, 140). Between 1947 and 1977, it is estimated that two capacitor manufacturing plants, owned by General Electric (GE) and located in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, respectively (GE 2005), discharged around 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson (McGurty 2007, 29), creating what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now classifies as a Superfund Site (EPA 2013A). Fortunately, this classification has led to the development and initiation of a two-phase cleanup project facilitated by the EPA. Phase two began in June 2011, and is currently operating at full production as the largest PCB remediation project ever attempted (Strayer 2012, 146). Ultimately, the goal of this project is the removal of PCBs from the 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson most affected by the pollution.

As pollutants, PCBs are particularly problematic because they do not degrade. This characteristic is referred to as persistence, and the resulting effect is a bioaccumulation of the compound. PCBs’ failure to dissipate was recognized in the 1970s: in 1975, the EPA estimated that 45% of the American population had PCBs in their tissue (McGurty 2007, 28). In 1977, this estimate increased to 90%. The rapid increase was attributed to the bioaccumulation effect, wherein PCBs deposited in the sediment do not disappear. When a fish eats a plant that has grown in this sediment, PCB levels are completely conserved. Humans are not immune to this effect, and consumption of contaminated fish is the primary health risk associated with this site. Specifically, the risks associated with even low exposure to PCBs include increased risk of cancer and disruptions to the immune, reproductive, neurological, and endocrine systems (Strayer 2012, 140). These reports all demonstrated the importance of an immediate ban—given the dispersion and volume of the pollutant, there was no way to instantly remove all PCBs, and it would take some time to significantly reduce the risk of exposure. Just like that, “the miracle chemical that helped electricity fuel a vast expansion of the economy turned out to cause havoc, in unknown proportions, to people and environments” (McGurty 2007, 29).

Importantly, the EPA’s designation of the Hudson River as a Superfund Site in 1984 earned it a place on the Agency’s National Priorities List of the most contaminated hazardous waste sites in the country (EPA 2013A). This classification also, however, assigned all financial responsibility for cleanup costs to GE (Strayer 2012, 145). For years, GE engaged in elaborate public relations efforts to refute the risks associated with PCBs. Simultaneously, the company aggressively fought the legality of the EPA’s decision to designate GE as financially responsible for the cleanup; even in 2005, the company “continue[d] to pursue its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal Superfund” (GE 2005). GE persistently resisted all plans proposed by the EPA, spending millions of dollars on a marketing campaign for an alternative, cheaper solution that involved dechlorinating the PCBs without dredging (Strayer 2012, 145). Ultimately, GE lost these battles, and twenty-five years after the classification as Superfund (Revkin 2009), an operation to eliminate the most contaminated sites had finally emerged out of the convoluted battle between science and politics.

For the EPA, determining how to execute this cleanup was challenging. Initially, the EPA decided that dredging the contaminated sediment on a large scale was not technically feasible (Strayer 2012, 145). Many opposed the decision to dredge because they thought it would stir up the PCBs lying benignly in the sediment, thereby increasing exposure to the chemical. GE was a major proponent of the contention that leaving the contaminated sediment alone would allow fresh sediment to settle on top, effectively sealing off the pollutant and eventually eliminating the problem. This did not hold up, though, and while the disruption of sediment remains a legitimate concern, improvements in technology drove the Agency to switch from a no-action plan to a hot-spot-focused one. That is, to ensure maximum impact with minimum cost and disruption, only the most highly contaminated areas would be undertaken and sediment would be carefully removed.

Phase I was carried out between March and November of 2009, successfully removing sediment from a six-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River near Fort Edward, New York (EPA 2009). After an extensive review by a board of independent scientists and a broad range of stakeholders, the more substantial Phase II began, targeting sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson ranging from the former Fort Edward Dam south to the Federal Dam at Troy (EPA 2013B). During dredging season, the computer-operated barges run 24 hours a day, six days a week. Many local people are hired to work on the project, which employs a total of 500 individuals per season. The dredged sediment is transported to PCB-approved disposal facilities around the country, including Texas, Idaho, and Michigan.

Even now, GE is prosecuting whoever they can in an attempt to alleviate the financial burden of this cleanup. On April 30, for example, they filed suit against National Grid, attempting to blame them for a portion of the PCB contamination (Dolmetsch 2013). GE’s behavior is understandable: expected to cost more than $500 million, this project is expensive, complicated, and will only solve part of the problem – only 46 miles of the 200-mile Superfund site are included in the present plan (Strayer 2012, 145-6). Nevertheless, the project is accomplishing more good than harm, and it is one of many difficult but necessary responses to the human trial-and-error, live-and-learn approach to reconciling industrialization and our environment. The EPA’s cleanup project is a substantial step in the right direction, and will hopefully set the stage for more mindful decision-making regarding future corporate growth.

 

References:

Dolmetsch, Chris. 2013. “GE Sues National Grid for Payment of Hudson Dredging Cost.” Posted April 30, 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-30/general-electric-sues-niagara-mohawk-over-hudson-dredging-costs.html

General Electric. 2005. “Shareowner Proposals: Report on PCB Cleanup Costs.” Last modified 2005. http://www.ge.com/ar2004/proxy/prop03.jsp

McGurty, Eileen. 2007. Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, and the Origins of Environmental Justice. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

NUS Corporation. 1983. Hudson River PCBs Site, New York: Feasibility Study. Pittsburgh: NUS Corporation.

Revkin, Andrew C. 2009. “Dredging of Pollutants Begins in Hudson.” The New York Times. Published May 15, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/16/science/earth/16dredge.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Strayer, David L. 2012. The Hudson Primer: The Ecology of an Iconic River. Berkeley: University of California Press.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2009. “Phase 1 Dredging: Factsheet.” Last modified November 2009. Accessed April 26. http://www.epa.gov/hudson/pdf/phase1_factsheet_nov2009.pdf

United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2013A. “Hudson River PCBs Superfund Site.” Last modified April 12, 2013. Accessed April 26. http://www.epa.gov/hudson/index.html

United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2013B. “Phase 2: Phase 2 Overview Factsheet.” Last modified Spring 2013. Accessed April 26. [1] http://www.epa.gov/hudson/pdf/Phase2_Overview-Spring2013.pdf

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