You are here

G.E. Spent Years Cleaning Up the Hudson. Was It Enough?


A General Electric dredging barge lifting soil to remove PCBs from a Hudson River bank near Troy, N.Y., in May 2015.
(Photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

FORT EDWARD, N.Y. — Ask Matthew Traver, the mayor of this village north of Albany, his opinion of General Electric and its two closed factories that spilled PCBs into the Hudson River for decades, and his words could not be clearer.

“G.E.,” he said, “has done a lot of damage to this community.”

But ask Mr. Traver if he and other residents believe that the industrial giant should continue dredging the Hudson to remove more of the chemical poison — as G.E. did for years before finishing last year — and his answer is equally firm, if surprising.

“I’d say the general consensus in this community is, ‘You’ve dredged, you’re done,’” he said. “It’s over.”

That sense of resignation, shared by some others on the Upper Hudson, is the direct opposite of a position taken recently by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is pushing the federal government to closely consider the issue of whether G.E.’s cleanup efforts have been enough.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said that the company fulfilled its promises under a 2005 order, resulting in the removal of nearly three million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. But Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, in a recent letter to the E.P.A.’s top official in New York, challenged the federal remedy, saying “unacceptably high levels of PCB-contaminated sediment remain in large portions of the Upper Hudson.”

“The work is not done,” Mr. Seggos said in the letter to Judith Enck, the agency’s regional administrator who oversees New York.

The state believes that at least 136 acres of underwater sediment in the Upper Hudson — stretching north from Albany — harbor “unacceptably high” levels of PCBs, or the synthetic chemical polychlorinated biphenyl, which was used to make transformers, capacitors and other electrical products. The state bolstered its claim by pointing to an analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that the recovery of fish in the Lower Hudson was not as robust as hoped.

The Environmental Protection Agency, responding to the state’s concerns, noted that it disagreed with the findings on fish recovery and questioned NOAA’s methods, which the agency said took place at a single sampling station near Albany shortly after the completion of dredging. “It is not possible for the fish to recover immediately,” the agency said.

The cleanup of the Upper Hudson paid for by G.E. was prescribed to remove over 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment and encompass a roughly 40-mile stretch of the river, from the Troy Dam to Fort Edward. Its progress is assessed every five years.

But Mr. Seggos, in an interview, said federal officials had allowed G.E. to declare mission accomplished too soon. “Both the amount of sediment and the fish are suggesting that the initial goals of the remedy have not been, and may not be met, for decades,” he said.

The General Electric plant in Hudson Falls during the early 1970s. In June, the company began demolishing the plant, an Eisenhower-era relic.
(Photo: New York Times)

The state’s move has been cheered by environmentalists, who have long lobbied for more expansive solutions to a pollutant whose toxicity was first suspected in the 1930s.

“It’s been clear that this was a partial cleanup,” said Ned Sullivan, the president of Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit group based in Poughkeepsie. “New York State stood up and said, ‘We do not believe that what has been conducted to date is sufficient.’” Mr. Sullivan also noted that dozens of communities on the river had shown support for additional measures.

The questions around the dredging also come at an awkward moment in G.E.’s history on the Upper Hudson, which dates to the end of World War II. In January, the company closed its plant in Fort Edward, having moved 200 jobs to Florida, at about the same time that it said it would move its headquarters from Connecticut to Boston, despite an active effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to woo G.E. to New York.

In May, the company also began demolishing its nearby Hudson Falls plant, an Eisenhower-era relic that sat on the edge of the Hudson, its soil so polluted with PCBs that engineers dug tunnels 200 feet into bedrock to capture minute amounts of poison seeping into the river.

For its part, the company hailed what a spokeswoman called its “world-class engineering work” and the $1.6 billion it spent on dredging efforts. “The PCB levels in the Upper Hudson have already shown significant declines,” said the spokeswoman, Deirdre Latour, adding that the E.P.A. had already agreed that the company had met its obligations under the agreement, and that “ no additional dredging was necessary.”

And while the E.P.A. is still conducting a review of the project, due next spring, “We’re confident that assessment will show the dredging project achieved the agency’s goals of protecting public health and the environment,” Ms. Latour said.

The long-running campaign to restore the Hudson, one of America’s signature waterways, has yielded cleaner waters. Still, the result of the five-year review could be used to compel G.E. to do more dredging.

But regardless of the outcome of that review, due in April, the company has left behind a deep vein of anger and pain as a result of its plants’ closings and their history of pollution.

“They contaminated it, cleaned some of it up,” Mayor Traver, of Fort Edward, said. “And left us high and dry.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation cites maps showing scores of spots along the Upper Hudson where elevated levels of PCBs still sit in the silt below the water. Mr. Seggos, the agency’s commissioner, believes additional cleanup could take as little as two years, though it would be expensive.

Cassie Wilusz and her mother, Gail Taras, who live in Schuylerville, a river town with a smattering of upscale businesses, said that if the state believed more dredging was needed, it should be done. “At the end of the day, I want my daughter to be 40 and be able to go in the water,” said Ms. Wilusz, 35, whose daughter is 6.

The Hudson River, near the Troy Dam. Under a 2002 plan by the federal government, G.E. would pay to clean sediment from a roughly 40-mile stretch of the river, from the dam to Fort Edward..
(Photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

Ms. Taras, 60, nodded, but for now, she will tell her grandchildren to “shower when they get out of that river.” And sure enough, people still swim in the river — jumping from bridges, and boats — even if signs still warn not to eat the fish.

It was the water, of course, that brought many businesses here in the first place — including still-active paper and plastics plants — and the names of villages along the river here are inextricably linked to it: Waterford, Stillwater, Hudson Falls.

As a result, in many places, water contamination was simply a fact of life, particularly after evidence of PCBs — which are probable carcinogens, according to the E.P.A. — in the Hudson River began to emerge in the 1970s. Residents knew not to the eat fish from the river, public beaches closed and tales of strange ailments began to circulate.

“You’d dry off and you could feel it,” said Debbie Comorski, 51, a riverfront resident in Stillwater. “Your skin would just tighten up.”

Ms. Comorski is among those who believe that General Electric needs to get back in the water. “Do it now,” she said. “Clean it.”

But others say it would do more harm than good. “It’s just going to muck it up,” said Bob Hallum, 72, a business owner in Stillwater who worried about the impact on fishing and boating.

Mr. Hallum said that residents there had been warned about PCBs in their soil deposited on riverfront properties by flooding. “So what are they going to do?” he said. “Dig up the lawns?”

In Fort Edward, where some of the more than one million pounds of PCBs that poisoned the Hudson were used, there is ambivalence about G.E.’s efforts.

“It’s a farce,” said Pat Fitzsimmons, a barber, who had watched the dredging — done with claw-like heavy equipment and barges — and was skeptical about its success. “How much did they migrate south along the river?”

Mr. Fitzsimmons’s friend Joe Viele concurred. “It’s not an exact science,” he said.

Then, he offered to take a reporter to see the site of the old Hudson Falls plant. The site is now rubble: its buildings torn down to their foundations, a single empty flagpole still standing.

Mr. Viele, whose mother worked at G.E. for decades before dying of cancer, joked that he “never caught a three-eyed fish.”

He grew quiet.

“It’s just a shame,” he said. “People just didn’t realize what was happening at the time.”