Hudson River Cleanup Review Divides NY and Feds

To clean up 30 years of contamination, workers dredge the Hudson River using excavators with environmental clamshell buckets mounted on flat, anchored platforms. The PCB-contaminated sediment is emptied onto 35-foot-wide, 195-foot-long floating barges. (Photo by EPA via Courthouse News Service)

(CN) — With the U.S. departure from the Paris climate deal provoking global outrage, the Environmental Protection Agency sparked a more local controversy Thursday in New York by finding its Hudson River cleanup adequate to mitigate three decades of pollution by General Electric.

The Empire State is still reeling from the legacy of 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls — carcinogens better known as PCBs — that two GE plants dumped into the northern waters of the Hudson River between 1947 and 1977.

Decades would pass before GE would agree to the company’s largest environmental remediation ever under a 2006 legal agreement.

When cleanup began three years later, the EPA dredged 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment in a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson Valley over the course of six years.

Federal and state officials have long been at odds on the adequacy of this approach, which ended in 2015. The dispute escalated Thursday with the EPA’s projections that Hudson River fish have slowly begun to rebound.

The cleanup of the Hudson River involves removing sediment and debris, then transferring them to a processing facility on the Champlain Canal in Fort Edward. (Photo by EPA via Courthouse News Service)

Catherine McCabe, the EPA’s acting regional administrator, projected long-term success upon the completion of the agency’s second five-year review.

“The question that the five-year review asks is ‘do we still think the cleanup decision we made in 2002 will provide long-term protection of human health and the environment?’” McCabe said in a statement. “Based on the information and data that we have today, that answer is yes.”

With 400,000 pounds of PCBs removed from the upper Hudson River — a 72 percent reduction from that section — the EPA found the levels of this chemical in fish declining but still unsafe.

“While the project was designed to set the river on a course for recovery, we have always explained that the recovery will take many years,” McCabe emphasized.

In a 73-page report, the EPA predicted that it will take about eight years for fish tissue to decline to 50 percent of its current PCB concentration, if the chemical recedes from lipid normalized tissue at a rate of 8 percent per year.

“It is not possible for the fish to fully recover immediately after the conclusion of dredging,” McCabe added.

The EPA’s hopeful outlook has inspired criticism, however, from New York’s top environmental officer.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed New York by determining that its PCB cleanup of the Upper Hudson River is protective of human health and the environment,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a statement. “We strongly dispute their conclusions and maintain that the significant amount of contamination left in the river threatens both public health and the environment.”

New York-based environmental groups back up Seggos’ assessment as well.

Riverkeeper’s legal director Richard Webster noted in a phone interview that the EP’s report refutes the agencies’ prior view that dredging the upper part of the river would reap benefits in the southern sections.

“What it shows is we’re going to need more action in the lower Hudson,” he said. “New York state has said that it is very concerned about the state of the Hudson, and it will take action if EPA doesn’t.”

Archaeologists involved in the cleanup of New York’s Hudson River unearthed at least 10 sunken vessels during the first phase of the project. This picture shows a propeller from a late-18th or early-19th century boat submerged in the eastern channel of Rogers Island. (Photo by EPA via Courthouse News Service)

The EPA says that more study is needed for this section of the river.

“Limited data collection from the Lower Hudson River indicates that recovery rates are slower than in the Upper Hudson River and may not be strongly associated with PCB loading from the Upper Hudson River,” the report states.

Meanwhile, Webster fears that the EPA will continue to define success down.

“Instead of meeting the goals, they’re going to move the goalposts,” he said.

Now under the leadership of Scott Pruitt — a Republican politician who used to be agency’s prolific courtroom opponent when he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general — the EPA is not expected to push hard against industry any time soon.

GE did not respond to further request for comment but told the Associated Press that the EPA’s review showed “no additional dredging in the Upper or Lower Hudson is recommended.”

And so, Seggos said, the Hudson River’s longtime health is now in the hands of the state, even while dialing up the pressure on Washington.

“DEC will continue to fight for the Hudson River and New Yorkers and hold the polluter accountable for its actions,” he said. “Once again, we are calling on EPA to finish the job and refer back to their original Record of Decision that committed the agency’s full responsibility to clean up this toxic legacy and restore the Hudson River.”

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