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Dredge Report

The effort to remove PCBs from the Hudson River continues, and the EPA is optimistic about its progress

by Erin Pihlaja on May 1, 2013


Angling in Troy: The EPA hopes that dredging the Hudson River will lead to a future of healthier fish—and people. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

“I grew up in Greene County,” said Judith Enck. “I went to a high school that was right on the banks of the river. I remember being a teenager and going waterskiing, and the goal was to never fall in. There was a rainbow sheen on the surface of the water.”

That candy-colored slickness coating the Hudson River wasn’t a pleasant and nostalgic backdrop for Enck’s childhood memories; it was caused by heavy pollution, or more specifically, Enck says, petroleum.

Monday (April 29) marked the start of dredging season for the Environmental Protection Agency and the fourth year of a project designed to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of PCBs, or polychlorinated Biphenyls, from the sediment of the Hudson River.

“The project area is a 40-mile stretch of river,” said Larisa Romanowski, an EPA public affairs specialist. The area starts at Fort Edward and continues south to Troy, primarily because of two General Electric plants that were in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. Romanowski said that at those points, the water contaminates are concentrated but that the toxic substances also dispersed downstream.

“The scale and scope of the project is immense,” said Romanowski. “The PCBs bind to the sediment.” She added that “as of the end of last year just about 1.3 million” cubic yards had been removed from the river’s bottom and that each year the project aims to remove another 350,000 cubic yards.

“I think the Hudson River PCB cleanup is one of the more important toxic clean ups happening in the nation today,” said Enck, an EPA regional administrator. “It’s been a long time coming—I’ve worked here since 1987, and I’m considered a newbie in this issue. [PCBs are] the single most toxic threat facing the Hudson River, and removing them is our greatest hope in saving the river from this legacy of toxic pollution.”

“GE is responsible for discharging what the EPA estimates as around 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river,” said Romanowski. “The problem with PCBs is that they stick around and cause problems with wildlife, fish, and people.”

“The fish are the canaries in the coal mine,” said Enck. “Most people are exposed to PCBs from eating contaminated fish.” She also noted that PCBs have been shown to cause cancer.

GE is a part of the dredging process, and Romanowski said that the company estimated that 350 jobs are created each year during the project. GE has filed a lawsuit against National Grid, claiming that the pollution would not have been so widespread had the British-based utility giant’s corporate predecessor, Niagara Mohawk, not removed the Fort Edward Dam in 1973.

Despite corporate legal woes, “environmental nerds,” as Romanowski called them, are excited to see the project progress. Enck agreed.

“We’re not out of the woods but we’re in much better place,” said Enck. “It takes years to get this far, and the good news is that we’ve reduced some of the solid waste that floats on the river, and some toxic sediment on the bottom. Without this our iconic river will never recover, and in my lifetime I want to see this river go from badly polluted to healthy.”