Remembering the Historic Fight over Pcb Dredging on the Hudson River

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Dredging has been underway since 2009 on the upper Hudson River to remove toxic PCBs from river sediment. (Photo credit: U.S. EPA)

Article courtesy of Brian Mann | May 25, 2015 | north country public radio | Shared as educational material

This summer, General Electric and the Environmental Protection Agency will wrap up major dredging operations on the upper Hudson River.

For nearly fifteen years, this project, the largest Superfund clean-up effort in United States history, shaped life for river communities from Troy to the shores of Lake Champlain.

Tomorrow, Brian Mann will look at this summer’s operation and at what the clean-up has accomplished. This morning, we look back at the fight that shaped the project.

Here’s Brian’s investigative report that first aired in April of 2001.

A gorgeous landscape, with toxins in the sediment

On a bright April afternoon, Andy Mele picked his way along a muddy path that follows the upper Hudson.

The first day of dredging to remove PCB-laden sediments from the upper Hudson River in 2009. (Photo credit: David Chanatry.)

Mele said, “We’re in a river valley, fairly flat, low rolling hills. It’s very early spring, and there’s still some snow on the ground. The ground’s muddy from snow runoff. We’re looking out at the Thompson Island Pool.”

The day was gorgeous. On the far shore, wood ducks moved in a line under budding trees. Nearby, a trickle of snowmelt formed a waterfall. Then, Mele pointed to where the brown, silt-filled water mingles with chunks of ice. He said, “Sitting literally at our feet is probably 150,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls. We’re looking at ground zero of America’s largest Superfund site.”

A vital industry, a toxic legacy

Thompson Island Pool lies at the head of the 200-mile stretch of contaminated water, one of the legacies of America’s postwar industrial boom. In the late 40s, polychlorinated biphenyls were considered an essential chemical, used to make a wide range of electrical equipment. For three decades, General Electric’s factories here poured untreated PCBs directly into the Hudson. More than a million pounds of the chemical washed downstream, reaching as far as New York Harbor. Most scientists now think PCBs cause cancer and the substance was banned in 1977.

In the years since, environmental groups like Andy Mele’s Sloop Clearwater called for GE to remove the PCBs. The corporation resisted that idea and lobbied for decades to block a series of clean-up plans. Then the Environmental Protection Agency determined that leaving PCBs in the river is a hazard to the environment and to people’s health. Richard Caspe, head of the EPA’s Superfund program, made the announcement at a public hearing in Saratoga Springs.

Caspe said, “We know that PCB is a serious health threat. We know that over one million pounds of PCBs were discharged into the Hudson River. We know that there’s unacceptable fish contamination. We know that people are eating the fish despite the “eat none” advisories. We know that birds and animals obviously are eating the fish as well. So after a ten-year study, where are we?”

Dredging the Hudson River. (Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Creative Commons, some rights reserved)

To dredge or not to dredge

The solution, Caspe said, is a massive dredging operation designed to suck PCB-laden sediments from the river bottom. In one of the biggest environmental clean-ups in U.S. history, a fleet of dredging barges would fan out over 40 miles of the upper Hudson. For five years the dredges would work round the clock. They would haul out nearly three million cubic yards of contaminated mud.

Once contaminated sediments and debris are removed from the river, they are taken to a processing facility on the Champlain Canal in Fort Edward. (Photo credit: U.S. EPA)

General Electric would be forced to pay for the cleanup, with a price tag of nearly half a billion dollars. General Electric responded with an aggressive PR campaign designed to convince the public that dredging would slow the river’s natural recovery. Television ads like this one show the Hudson as a pristine river, busy with families swimming and boating.

“These wonderful moments on one of the richest rivers on Earth could be interrupted for the next 20 years if the EPA orders the Hudson dredged.”

The company’s ads and infomercials aired in heavy rotation on dozens of Hudson Valley TV and radio stations. General Electric also plastered its anti-dredging message on billboards and buses. Pro-environment groups said the campaign may have cost as much as $60 million. Officials at GE put the figure between $10 and $15 million. At a recent shareholder meeting, GE’s management fought a proposal that would have forced the company to open its books to show exactly how much it spent on legal fees, advertising, and lobbying efforts to block the clean-up. Spokesman Steve Ramsay said, “The Company doesn’t talk about how much it spends in terms of public information or advertising in any area.” When asked why and what the company’s motive for that was, Ramsay said, ”Well, I mean, that’s information that we just generally don’t share with the public. We don’t think that that’s the issue. The issue here should be, what’s the right remedy for the Hudson River?”

Many locals thought it would be better to leave the river alone

To help make its case, General Electric’s ads featured local residents like Judy Dean, who runs the Schuyler Yacht Basin. She said, “As you can see, this is not only our business, this is our home. We live here, we have invested everything. Our entire lives are here.”

Schuylerville is a small town that sits in the middle of the Hudson’s most polluted stretch. There are PCB hot spots to the north and south. Dean said she doesn’t worry about her health. Walking along the snowy river bank, she points to the dock where her customers tie up their boats. Dean said, “The risk to the average person living here, working here, traveling through here, is nil. If you don’t eat the fish and if you don’t eat tons of fish, you will not become contaminated at all, period.”

Dean is vice president of CEASE, a group that opposes dredging the Hudson. The organization has support from General Electric. Like a lot of people here, Dean said she is ambivalent about the company. She said she agreed to appear in GE’s ads only to get her own message to the public. She said, “This has nothing to do with General Electric. I really have no interest in General Electric at all, except that yes, I happen to agree that dredging is not the way to lower the levels of PCBs in fish.”

General Electric’s campaign was effective. Many residents thought dredging would actually stir up the PCBs and make the river less safe. After decades of recession, the upper Hudson’s economy was in a revival driven by tourism and a boom in vacation homes.

People here said the huge cleanup operation would drive visitors away. There were lawn signs everywhere that called for the federal government to leave the Hudson alone. More than 50 communities passed resolutions that opposed the EPA plan. Ernest Martin is mayor of Stillwater, where General Electric is a major employer. Martin said, “I am definitely against dredging in the Hudson River. It would take too many years to clean it under the dredging proposal by EPA. Our future for tourism, employment, new business, will be lost forever. You want to do what’s right? Don’t dredge the Hudson. You don’t like our valley? Then stay in Washington, D.C.”

A fight that turned ugly

At times the public hearings turned into shouting matches like this one, with EPA officials and locals trading accusations. Caspe said, “I’m sorry you felt it necessary to use that rhetoric, to believe that we have a vested — Well, does the truth hurt?” Someone in the audience yelled, “You’ve got a good teacher.” Caspe said, “Well, I’m sorry that you believe that’s the best your government can give you.” The man replied, “It is! It is!”

One hearing in Queensbury was cut short when a bomb scare forced a thousand people to clear the auditorium. Andrea Rychlenski is a public affairs specialist with the EPA who has worked on the Hudson River project for ten years. She said the level of bitterness is a surprise. Rycylenski said, “Generally it’s a matter of what we have proposed is not clean enough. People want it even cleaner. They want guarantees of safety and guarantees for their health. This is quite unique, in that we have a portion, a considerable portion of the Hudson Valley that does not want a contaminant taken out of their midst.”

Rychlenski said public opposition to the clean-up formed in the 1980s when New York State proposed building toxic waste dumps for the PCBs here in the Hudson Valley. The EPA’s plan now calls for the sludge to be shipped to dumps as far away as Texas, but the ill will remains. “There is a fundamental distrust, and I think this has certainly been taken advantage of by General Electric with the ad campaign. It plays on all those historic fears. If you’ve been with this as long as I have, you see it very, very plainly,” Rychlenski said.

Health advisories remain

The EPA and environmental groups said GE’s anti-dredging campaign is inaccurate and manipulative. Some scientists also worried that the ads cause people to ignore health advisories. Studies showed many folks still ate fish taken from the Hudson. They ignored warnings that contaminated fish could cause cancer. The thymus gland could also be damaged by PCBs and lead to immune deficiencies. Researchers also suspect the chemical causes birth defects. Dr. David Carpenter is a professor of toxicology at the University of Albany. He studied the effects of PCBs for the last 15 years. Carpenter said, “In my judgment there is definitely a risk to humans from the PCBs that are in the river. A lot of the distrust has been fed by the General Electric attempts, and blatant attempts, to influence the outcome by casting doubt on the objectivity, the credibility, of EPA. But on the basis of everything we know about human populations exposed to PCBs elsewhere, we have reason to suspect that there are health effects in those people as well.”

A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences echoed Carpenter’s concerns. The study found PCBs are statistically associated with liver and thyroid disease, and behavioral and developmental deficits in children. General Electric funded its own research, which found no definitive link between PCBs and human disease. Spokesman Steve Ramsay called those who argue otherwise irresponsible. Ramsay said, “The studies that have looked at electrical workers and the people who are the most highly-exposed to PCBs have simply shown that despite the fact that PCBs do cause tumors in laboratory animals at very high doses, those same results are not seen in human beings.”

General Electric claimed the Hudson River is restoring itself. The company argued PCBs would biodegrade and break down into less-toxic compounds for a decade. That hasn’t happened. General Electric then argued the toxins are captured and buried safely under layers of river sediment. A company advertisement showed a parade of geese and white-tailed deer with the shining river as a backdrop.

VOICE-OVER: The Hudson. It’s made a remarkable comeback. Wildlife is thriving. The river continues to clean itself….

Wildlife impacts still being studied

General Electric conceded PCBs in fish are still well above the EPA’s permissible level, but the company said the problem is not contaminated sediment. In a twist, GE claimed a residue of PCB sludge was still leaking into the river from the company’s factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. Spokesman Steve Ramsay said a cleanup at those sites was underway. Ramsay said, “Source control will achieve all of the same reductions in fish of PCBs that the dredging program will. That’s a given. We know that they will achieve equivalent results. And then you take a look at the negative impacts of dredging and you begin to say, ‘What’s the balance here? Why are we doing something that’s going to essentially destroy the river in an attempt to save it?’”

The EPA did not agree that source control was the answer. Flooding and frequent ice jams stir sediments in the Hudson each spring and bring PCBs to the surface. A study released by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation found chemicals dumped decades ago moved beyond the river. PCBs leached into soil along the Hudson’s bank. Contamination in people’s yards and nearby fields was six times above the EPA’s recommended level.

Ann Secord is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Secord said, “I’ve spent a lot of time on the Hudson River, and I really love the Hudson River. Physically it appears to be a very normal, healthy ecosystem. But I know that this is a very contaminated ecosystem.”

Secord studied tree swallows on the upper Hudson where the birds feed on contaminated insects that hatch from the river. The PCB concentrations found in the swallows there were the highest she had ever seen in the species. For the most part, Secord said, the effects are subtle. Some tree swallows start building their nests wrong, or they abandon them altogether. Secord thinks that could be the result of altered hormone levels, a PCB side effect shown in lab studies. In rare cases, the tree swallows Secord examined were deformed. “We did find one nestling with a cross-bill. We found two nestlings with deformed legs. And we found one with a small eye. We also did know a few tree swallow nestlings that had swollen abdomens, which may have been an indication of edema,” Secord said.

Biologists also saw high levels of PCBs in turtles, mink, and otter, which eat contaminated fish. Studies like these made headlines in the bigger cities down-river, where the cleanup plan has more support. But in the small towns along the upper Hudson where the dredging would take place, many people rejected or simply ignored the government’s findings. In Hudson Falls people said the river looks clean. Floating garbage and raw sewage, common sights a generation ago, were gone. River otters and blue herons returned. The PCBs that remain near GE’s waterfront factory are invisible, so tiny that they are measured in parts per million. The health study funded by New York State tried to determine whether the chemical made residents sick. But John Mattison, a GE worker who handled PCB-laden oils for 35 years, said the research is a waste of time. Mattison said, “I personally feel a lot of people like to talk. They don’t understand what they’re talking about.” When asked what would convince him there was a health risk at the river, Mattison said, “Nobody’s going to convince me, because I know better. I know it’s a pack of lies. You’ve got to realize that this is a beautiful river. The wildlife just came back. It would be a horrible thing to destroy this river now.”

Andy Mele, head of Sloop Clearwater, agreed the Hudson was cleaner. He credited federal programs like the Clean Water Act that stopped the dumping of untreated waste. Restoring the Hudson has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Mele said it is time for General Electric to pay its share. “GE’s media strategy has been to get you to distrust government, to distrust science. They’ve turned this whole area into the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. I think every polluter is out there watching General Electric on this one, going to school on it,” Mele said.

In the end, the EPA ordered a clean-up effort, a project now described as the largest single Superfund site in United States history. According to GE, the project cost more than $1 billion dollars. Now in its sixth summer of operations, the company acknowledged many of its worst fears about how the dredging might affect local communities did not take place. Mark Behan, a spokesman for GE said, “We did have reservations about this project, as did many others.” He said the clean-up effort, which cost the company roughly $1 billion, turned out to be a national model. “We’re very proud of our work on the Hudson.”

Tomorrow we’ll go back to the upper Hudson to find out what half a decade of dredging has accomplished. Some scientists said more work needs to be done to help this river heal.

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