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Effectiveness of Hudson River dredging called into question


FORT EDWARD — Officials from the EPA and General Electric have touted the success of the first season of dredging the Hudson River, during which nearly 300,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment was removed from the river. But does the amount of contamination removed so far, and scheduled to be removed in the scope of the entire project, come close to addressing the entire problem of PCBs dumped by GE’s Fort Edward capacitor manufacturing plant?

That is the question raised by an article in the December issue of Harper’s magazine, called “The General Electric Superfraud: Why the Hudson River will never run clean.” In it, author David Gargill asserts that vast underground reservoirs of PCB oil discharged from GE’s Hudson River and Fort Edward plants are leaking into the river and have the potential to compromise the EPA’s contamination removal by the dredging.

Dredging of sediment tainted with PCBs — an oily substance commonly used in manufacturing before it was found to be a possible human carcinogen and banned in the 1970s — along the bottom of the Hudson River began in May. GE was ordered to do the clean up by the EPA; it is scheduled to last through 2016. The first phase ended in October and 2010 will be devoted to a review of the process by GE, the EPA and an independent panel.

Dredging the “hot spots,” as EPA officials refer to the areas of river bed that are heavily contaminated by PCBs, will ultimately be inadequate, Gargill writes, because “the valley holding the river in its palm is saturated with untold tons of migrating toxins that threaten to nullify the EPA’s $1 billion cure.”

Gargill’s 10 months of research included attending meetings of the Community Advisory Group and interviewing environmental experts and government officials affiliated with the project.

Walter Hang, a former employee of the New York Public Interest Group and founder of an environmental data aggregating company called Toxics Targeting, is one of Gargill’s key sources, as is Kevin Farrar, a geologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation working on the remediation efforts of the contaminated bedrock underneath the plants.

Officials, including Farrar, dispute many of the claims made in Gargill’s article. They do acknowledge, however, that PCBs are present in the bedrock beneath both plants. That issue is being dealt with, they say, and will not have a negative impact on the Hudson River.

GE is funding a remediation effort ordered by the DEC at their former plants. For several years, PCB oil has been drained from beneath the Hudson Falls plant via wells drilled into the bedrock. Though Farrar said it was impossible to know exactly how much PCB oil is in the bedrock, he is confident that the majority has been removed.

Downriver of the plant at Rogers Island, the river is monitored weekly to determine how much PCB contaminant has seeped from beneath the plant into the river. Farrar said that before any remediation began in the 1990s, levels as high as 4,000 parts per trillion (ppt) were recorded. The EPA’s goal for that testing is 2 ppt; Farrar said it is within reach, and recent testing has shown PCB contamination of 3.5 ppt.

“We think we can control the flow of PCB from the Hudson Falls site” to keep the in-river readings at or below the 2 ppt level, Farrar said.

Gargill’s conclusion is by no means that dredging should be stopped; rather, he believes that the Superfund site should be expanded to include the former plants and much of the surrounding area. That expansion would address what experts have told him is the root of the problem.

“The river is being steadily contaminated,” he said in an interview Thursday.

“At best, the dredging is beginning to look like a billion dollar gamble if you don’t take care of that other site.”

On Tuesday EPA spokesperson Kristen Skopeck issued a statement responding to Gargill’s article: “I strongly disagree with the conjecture in the article. EPA feels dredging is the only suitable remedy for cleaning up the contamination in the Upper Hudson,” she wrote.

The contamination underneath the former plants is the state responsibility, and their clean up is progressing according to plan, she added.