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The Hudson River: A Superfund in Stasis

Hey there, ecoSPEARS readers! For those of you who are first-timers to our blog: welcome! This month’s post should give you a sweet “too long; didn’t read” summary of one of the biggest environmental cleanup sites and its prospective projects we’ve been reporting on since our inception: the Hudson River. For our returning readers – I know, I know, ANOTHER blog post update on the Hudson River.
Why the Hudson, you ask? Well, not only is the Hudson the US’s flagship Superfund site, but it’s also one of the largest in the country with the longest-running history of environmental action and PCB remediation projects. Especially along the Upper Hudson River.
In 2015, GE gave official statement to US EPA and NYSDEC that they had successfully completed their six-year-long PCB remediation project along a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson, which had cost the conglomerate $1.7 billion. But after months and months of deliberating, EPA publicly declared in late 2018 that it would not be awarding GE a certificate of completion for the project, citing the continued presence of GE-sourced PCBs throughout the river. This decision was met with mutual agreement from NYSDEC and environmental activists alike, as well as other major stakeholders with claims to the Hudson.
While the State of New York called for more PCB cleanup to be done along the Hudson, many citizens living along the Superfund site and throughout the Hudson River Valley have grown skeptic over what this means for their health, their communities, and their environment.

In December 2018, a NYSDEC report was released which showed that despite all the previous work done to remove PCBs from the Hudson, concentration levels of PCBs haven’t declined below EPA’s federal toxic baseline of 50ppm.

“The levels of contamination in both fish and sediment have remained troublingly high,” said Basil Seggos last December regarding the report. Seggos is the head of NYSDEC. The news came as disappointing to many activists involved in environmental remediation of the Hudson. While many agree that a more robust cleanup is needed, some say that enough is enough. PCB remediation projects are traditionally costly, time-consuming, and disruptive to local communities – more decades spent on projects to remove PCBs from the Hudson would only leave community disruption in perpetuity. However, it would likewise leave risk factors including human exposure to toxic PCBs in perpetuity.
“They should have left it alone from the get-go,” said Jay Harrington, a New York citizen who lives along the river, to local radio station NCPR in January of 2019. When he was asked about the health risks PCB exposure could cause to him or his community, Harrington said it was “too late now.”
Unfortunately, many other citizens adhere to this same resignation, accepting the toxic status of the Hudson with Romanesque stoicism. And who can truly blame them? Some citizens of the Hudson River Valley have lived along the Superfund site for a majority of their lives: they’ve seen it all – and they’ve seen it all fail them. How can more litigation, more money, and more full-scale PCB remediation projects remove enough of the contaminant from the river to deem it healthy? Meanwhile, GE is also hoping to convince EPA that more dredging isn’t what’s needed for the Hudson River. Another round of similar cleanup efforts could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars during a time when the company is struggling to regain financial stability.
But GE may be right.

More dredging may not indeed be what’s needed. The Hudson River has already seen decades and billions of dollars spent in efforts to remove enough PCBs from its waters to be deemed non-threatening to human health, public safety, and wildlife. Opponents of traditional environmental dredging methods see it at best as a shotgun approach to the problem, but supporters and companies who utilize environmental dredging as an aspect to PCB remediation cite studies which show the process works.
The issue with the Hudson might be that previous dredging may not have worked as well as expected, especially as federal and state environmental regulations have slowly tightened over the past decade or two. This is one issue spokespersons for GE have cited in recent years, claiming that regulatory goalposts have shifted from when the Record of Decision for the project was signed and agreed upon and the project itself began.
PCB remediation and removal in the Hudson River has a triple-bottom line: parties liable for PCB cleanup want to remove PCBs and have their environmental liability eliminated; regulatory and government bodies want to see completed PCB remediation projects have worked within or in excess of the parameters of site action levels; and citizens, activists, and stakeholders living along or involved in the health of the Hudson River want to live in a clean environment without the presence of toxic chemicals that potentially threaten their health and safety.
The past has shown us that these bottom-line factors have not be met via traditional methods. Perhaps the resignation of certain Hudson River Valley citizens, as well as GE’s desire for no more dredging align more closely than some may see. If regulations deem that more PCB removal is needed from the Hudson, non-traditional technologies and methods should be properly vetted and tested for their capacity to remove PCBs from the Hudson in a non-disruptive and cost-effective manner; however, dredging is also not a wholly unreliable solution. Plenty of PCB remediation projects and other environmental cleanups – especially at Superfund sites – have shown dredging to work within effective parameters to reach EPA’s remedial action levels, as well as site-specific remedial goals.
Dredging is not the end-all-be-all to PCB remediation, but it is a tried and true method which has shown enough past success to remain a go-to method for environmental cleanup. Should EPA and other stakeholders deign another round of dredging necessary for the Hudson, this does not mean that other technologies or remediation methods are unreliable in comparison. In fact, dredging should always be considered at least part of the remedial solution for sites containing toxic levels of PCB contamination. That is to say, dredging can be paired with other means of less-costly, less-disruptive remediation efforts to mitigate project costs, risks, and disruption to liable parties, regulators, and the community.
The Hudson would not be the first PCB cleanup site where this approach would be taken. We cannot stress enough how complex of a process environmental remediation is a whole. At sites like the Hudson, this complexity is seen a much broader, much more massive scale. This is likewise why projects such as GE’s dredging of PCBs in the Hudson costs so much and took years to complete. The end goal is to leave the liable party free of future liability, leave the regulators with a natural site free of toxic contamination, and leave the community around the site free of future potential risk to their health. To reiterate from our previous posts on the Hudson River: technology will always out-pace legislation, and modern problems require modern solutions.

While the latter point is more commonly circulated via contemporary meme format (see above), the former is more important – society operates as a machine which only operates as well as its slowest moving part. Legislation is inherently a deeply political process requiring maximum input from all involved bodies to even finalize the draft of a new bill or legal clause, yet alone pass and implement it. This is why our team at ecoSPEARS consistently stresses individual learning, growth, and education. So, to follow with the theme of education (as well as a shameless self-plug on our own blog – I know, how meta can we get?), we want to offer you a more in-depth view to our SPEARS technology, its capacities, and how it could potentially be used to help save the Hudson River.

Our technology has successfully shown its abilities in our laboratory to extract PCBs from sediments like those found in the Hudson River.

If GE and New York residents agree that more dredging isn’t the answer, then it’s time to push for a new, modern, cost-effective, and non-disruptive technology to remove PCBs from the Hudson River once and for all. Parallel to this, if they decide more dredging is ultimately what is needed, pairing traditional dredging methods with technology like SPEARS can see a reduction in project cost, length, and risk.
Either way, PCBs remain at high enough levels in Hudson River sediment to continue to expose risks to human health, wildlife, and the environment of the Hudson River Valley. The bottom line for everyone with a single stake in the Hudson is to ask themselves, “what is at stake here?” The answer is the health and sustainability of one of the Unites States’ most beautiful and well-known natural and national treasures.
This is no longer a problem of the past. It is a problem of the present and will continue to be a problem for future generations the longer it takes for future action to be decided upon. Communities like those along the Hudson River deserve to live a life free of worry from potential risks of exposure to toxic chemicals in their water and environment. Companies like GE deserve a better technological answer to  ongoing PCB liabilities, and those with other toxic environmental contaminants, than expensive methods which do not fully address the problem at its root. Regulatory bodies deserve a better way of implementing measures to ensure their lands and their constituents are protected from exposure to toxic cancer-causing chemicals.
Everyone deserves better, but nothing can be better until everyone involved agrees on how to be better. That’s where ecoSPEARS comes in: it is our mission to deliver cost-effective, green technologies committed to the permanent extraction and destruction of PCBs. Without disrupting communities, without damaging the environment, and without placing further risk on those affected.
Our vision is to use cleantech for a better future. For you, and for everyone.
Stay tuned for more environmental updates on the Hudson River and other areas like it. Big waves are made by small movements colliding into one, and our team has seen a LOT of movement in recent months.
And as always, thanks for reading!

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