Friday, May 15, 2009

PCB Dredging Begins in Hudson River

Twenty-five years after the federal government declared part of the Hudson River to be a contaminated Superfund site, twelve dredges with blue clamshell buckets are removing sediment laced with PCBs. Freight trains running will carry the dried mud to a hazardous-waste landfill in Texas. An estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, flowed into the upper Hudson from two General Electric (G.E.) factories for three decades before they were banned, in 1977, as a health threat to people and wildlife. In high doses, they have been shown to cause cancer in animals and are listed by federal agencies as a probable human carcinogen.

While the Superfund site itself is 197 miles long, stretching from Hudson Falls, N.Y., to the southern tip of Manhattan, the initial phase involves spots along a six-mile segment south of Fort Edward, the hamlet across the river from this industrial site. G.E. is supervising and paying for the cleanup, which federal officials have estimated could cost more than $750 million. Industry experts say the ultimate cost could be many times than that, however. (G.E. declines to give an estimate.)

While most of the chemicals were dumped when such practices were legal, the Superfund law requires the responsible polluting party, when one can be pinpointed, to foot the cleanup bill.
Yet G.E has reserved the right, after a review of the operation in 2010, to reject the project’s much larger second phase. Federal environmental officials have said that if it did that, they would most likely order the cleanup to proceed and levy enormous penalties against the company.

The decision by the E.P. A. in 2002 to require dredging was a mix of politics and science, with a variety of expert panels split on the efficacy of dredging, but also on the perils of leaving so much contamination in sediments that might be disturbed by powerful floods or other factors. The hope now is that dredging 98 percent of the PCBs out of hot spots in the river will greatly speed what has been a slow natural decline in levels of the chemicals in striped bass and other fish species. After the PCB-tainted sediment is extracted, it will be replaced by clean fill along with plants native to the river. The contiminated mud will be taken by barges to a nearby $100 million treatment plant and transport hub built by General Electric for that purpose. (NYT, 5/15/09) photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

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