PCBs: A Catastrophic Toxin Poisoning Us All

PCBs: A Catastrophic Toxin Poisoning Us All

For months our team has shared a string of articles focusing on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These toxic cancer-causing chemicals are organic man-made compounds originally used in electronic appliances, fire retardants, paints, and other industrial materials for nearly fifty years during the 20th-century. The chemical nature of PCBs causes them to be hydrophobic (non-dissoluble in water) making them highly persistent and nearly impossible to destroy once they enter our ecosystems.

The only options currently in practice to deal with PCBs are dredging and capping. Dredging the environment requires a specialized barge vessel with specialized machinery to dig up and dispose of sediment contaminated with PCBs. The dredged sediment is then moved to a designated landfill and “monitored.” Capping involves building a large “cap” of soil and ore to place over the PCB contamination.

Neither of these options removes PCBs from the environment, and neither solution has the ability to destroy PCBs. Both involve years of man-hours, hundreds of millions (or in some cases billions) of dollars spent on the cleanup project, followed by a series of reports published detailing the cleanup process and all involved stakeholders crossing their fingers that the PCBs don’t continue to leech into the surrounding soil or groundwater. Oftentimes when a cleanup project has legally concluded but PCB contamination lingers at the site, community officials will call for more dredging to be done.

More dredging isn’t the answer to the problem, more dredging only stirs up more sediment which resuspends more PCBs into the ecosystem. Imagine crashing your car, so you go and buy a new one only to purposefully crash the new car in order to compare how much better your garage looks without a car in it. It’s an asinine answer to a persistent and deadly issue.

Capping isn’t any more a solution to PCB contamination than a band-aid is to a severed artery, and “monitored natural recovery” is the environmental remediation equivalent of, “don’t call us, we’ll call you…in five years. Give or take. It depends. We’re busy people.”

As it stands the current status quo of PCB contamination and its harmful effects on us, our wildlife, our land and our water is nothing other than unacceptable. Production of PCBs have been banned for over forty years but their very nature allows them cycle through our environment until they’re consumed or otherwise absorbed by living organisms.

Will we allow another forty years to pass while passing a blind eye to the deadly toxins leeching into our sources of food, water, and air? Oh, yeah. You read that right. Our air. PCBs in some areas including the Hudson River in New York and New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts have been allowed to sit for so long that they’re becoming airborne.

Communities afflicted by PCB-related illnesses are long overdue for closure. Our team here at ecoSPEARS is simply presenting a new solution to an old problem.

Every other week we will publish an original blog entry highlighting a specific community and the issues they face from PCBs and other deadly toxins. Today we’re going to look into the Hudson River Valley and the decades-long fight its citizens have waged to reclaim their health and the health of their environment.

 

“GE Factory at Fort Edward overlooking the Hudson River” (source: NPR file photo/innovationtrail.org – October 11, 2013)

 

In 2015, GE submitted all necessary paperwork to the federal Environmental Protection Agency saying they had adhered to the terms of a PCB remediation cleanup along a portion of the Upper Hudson River. The cleanup took six years and cost the corporation $1.7 billion (USD). The project saw teams working around the clock to dredge a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson, 200 miles of which is a designated US Superfund site. Dredging was done in two phases and ultimately removed roughly 2.75 million cubic-yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Hudson. Soon after completion, GE set plans in motion to close and eventually demolish two manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards, NY which were the primary sources of PCBs throughout the Hudson River Valley.

While all dredging operations were done by GE, independent teams of scientists provided analysis on sediment and water samples gathered to verify contamination levels and the EPA provided all oversight of the massive project. In 2017, GE became eligible for a Certificate of Completion by the EPA after the EPA’s five-year review of the project’s conclusion despite public outcry for more work to be done as concentrations of PCBs collected from thousands of samples along the Hudson remained hundreds of times higher than what is allowed by the state of New York.

As of January 2, 2018, the EPA has opted to freeze the project’s status of “completed” and days later said the agency would work with the DEC of New York to collect, analyze, and evaluate thousands of more samples from the lower Hudson River and nearby floodplains.

Although the decision is opposed by GE, it is supported by many environmentalists, activists, and especially New York officials including Governor Andrew Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “It is clear from the state’s ongoing research that EPA’s job is not done and they cannot declare that this remediation is complete,” Seggos said in November of 2017 prior to the EPA’s decision on the project’s status.

In January, both Seggos and Cuomo agreed that more dredging must be done to truly finish the project and GE’s lasting impact on the ecosystem of New York state for good.

It was around this same time that our very own John Omana, Director of Government Affairs and Land Use Entitlement for ecoSPEARS, called Commissioner Seggos’s office. “We’re going to help clean the Hudson River,” Omana said, “without dredging.”

More dredging isn’t the answer: it’s merely the best option out of a list of non-conclusive options to pull more PCBs from the riverbed. But a problem addressed is already half-solved. ecoSPEARS is currently positioned to close that gap to help afflicted communities rid themselves of PCBs for good.

Our company’s patented SPEARS technology, invented by NASA, provides an innovative and sustainable method to not only remove PCBs from soil and groundwater, but also to destroy them. Forever.

 

Prototype six-inch (6″) SPEARS used for deployment in our 2016 field test study with Golder Associates.

 

Forty years after their production being banned, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and the health defects they cause are still affecting our communities. Minden, an old coal mining town in West Virginia was recently labeled “the most toxic town” in the United States. Last December the EPA released a list of twenty-one Superfund sites being targeted for “immediate” and “intense” cleanup initiatives. Just last April in 2017, a report issued by The Guardian showed PCBs had been found in marine organisms 10,000 meters below the surface of the Pacific Ocean within the Mariana trench. The concentration of PCBs found there were “50 times greater” than crabs living near one of China’s most polluted waterways, the Liaohe River.

But how do PCBs find their way from a manufacturing plant in upstate New York to an ecosystem nearly 8,000 miles away, and six miles below sea level?

“PCBs tend to ‘biomagnify’ or ‘bioaccumulate’ over time,” says Dr. Phillip Maloney, co-inventor of the SPEARS technology at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. After being manufactured and dumped into bodies of water, “organisms lower on the food chain are contaminated by PCBs which are then later consumed by animals higher on the food chain. Over time, these animals higher on the food chain retain the PCBs they ingested and accumulate higher concentrations in their bodies.”

Humans are the top of our food chain.

A 2016 study by Scripps Institute of Oceanography suggests that in our current time, PCB contamination is likely found in fish all over the world. While health advisories may deter local anglers and children from swimming or fishing in contaminated areas, many areas of the world affected by PCBs have little-to-no knowledge of the dangers posed by their own ecosystem: dangers they did not cause. Many more are warned too late – if at all – to avoid consuming PCBs. Others, including many Native American tribes and Inuit people, have no choice as their diet have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. PCB contamination of Inuit people has been a known fact since the 1980s.

For those of you asking, “wait…I thought we were talking about the Hudson River?” We still are. The northernmost coasts of the Hudson Bay near the High Arctic flow south through northeastern Canada and down into New York, eventually emptying into the north Atlantic at the tip of Manhattan Island. Over several decades, PCBs originally discharged either into or in areas near the Hudson River have managed to find their way north and bioaccumulate into several different species of fish, which are then eaten by larger predators which in turn are consumed by Inuit near the Arctic border.

 

Inuit diet has remained unchanged for centuries and relies on sources of heavy, fatty meats including Walrus, Narwal, Caribou, and fish such as Salmon and Arctic Char. (source: Sep. 17, 2015 – sciencemag.org – Norbert Elseis-Hein/imageBROKER/Alamy)

 

The sources and adverse effects of PCBs are not new knowledge. After PCB production was banned by the federal government in 1979, it became rapidly apparent to citizens and governing bodies alike that the chemical would continue to harm life so long as it was allowed to persist in the environment.

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Responsibility, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) after many US citizens and agencies alike recognized the adverse effects PCB exposure and ingestion have to human health. CERCLA aided in establishing a large Trust Fund (Superfund) to lend financial assistance to the response and cleaning of designated sites. The Superfund Task Force, a branch of the EPA responsible for designating and overseeing the remediation and cleanup process of contaminated sites, has since highlighted hundreds of locations in need of intense remediation due to contamination from PCBs and other toxic chemicals. The Hudson River Valley in New York has been at the forefront of the Superfund list and the environmental remediation issue in the US ever since.

For nearly thirty years General Electric (GE) dumped hundreds of tons of PCBs into the Hudson River from its manufacturing plants along the River’s banks. PCBs as man-made organic chemicals were often used in electric appliances as well as many common plastics, rubbers, paints and dyes until the 1970s. Under CERCLA, GE is responsible for the PCBs they dumped into the river over thirty years and is liable for the cleanup and removal of PCBs to reach a level such that the EPA is satisfied the process has followed regulations and met its goals.

However, GE, the EPA, the state of New York, and members of communities along the Hudson all share different views on the definitions of “liable,” “cleanup,” and “done” which, while perhaps leading to the necessary spark which prompted the EPA to collect and evaluate more samples of the Hudson River for PCBs, has also put a number of speedbumps along the river’s road to recovery. Such is the case with almost every Superfund site in the United States.

From all of these factors and more, the modern environmentalist and remediation movement focusing on PCBs and Superfund cleanup initiatives built in and grew out of the Hudson Valley in New York. As early as the 1990s state officials, environmental scientists, and activists were aware of the issues caused by PCBs in and around the floodplains of the Hudson and sparked campaigns to educate the public of these issues. Many of the organizations that came from this movement – Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, and Clearwater to name a few – are still active and engaged with their communities today. It is largely due to the decades of work, research, and education that organizations such as these have been able to give back to their community. And now here we are, years later, finally able to see it come to a head through recent events and news surrounding the Hudson River.

Barely three months ago, the entire state of New York was ready to gather their pitchforks and fight the EPA in court if more work was not done regarding GE’s cleanup of the Hudson. Now the EPA is not only acknowledging the worries of New York’s citizens, but is openly working with NYSDEC, its Commissioner Basil Seggos, and other officials under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state offices to reach a reasonable, mutually agreeable decision for the health of New York’s environment.

To say the scale and depth of PCB contamination is massive – even in New York alone – would be a gross understatement. Despite the work that’s already been done to remediate PCBs from the environment their presence and the affects they have on humans and wildlife are not nearly as commonly known as one might expect. Especially to those not actively engaged in the fight. Perhaps it’s due to the amount of time it takes for cleanup projects to get the greenlight from government agencies and stakeholders of each site, or maybe it’s because of a general lack of interest from those not directly impacted.

 

A sign along the Hudson River advising against consuming fish from the river. New York’s “eat none” advisory for fish in the Upper Hudson has been in place for more than 40 years. (source: Jan. 16, 2013 – NOAA, Office of Response and Restoration)

 

Whether or not these are the underlying root of a gap in public knowledge of (or action against) PCBs are what drives our team at ecoSPEARS on not only highlighting affected communities, but also in investing our resources to educate current generations of the processes which caused contamination to become so widespread, as well as how we can all best tackle it head-on to mitigate the problem for the future.

Our team is dedicated to spreading the awareness of the PCB contamination issue, not simply because of what has or hasn’t already been done, but because the matter continues to be a pressing and vital problem for thousands of communities around the world. It is the undeniable, unalienable right that every life on Earth has available access to clean water, land, and air. To prevent or deny this right to anyone, anywhere, at any time for any reason is nothing other than an injustice to the betterment and enrichment of life everywhere. The SPEARS technology has had proven success removing AND destroying PCBs from the environment for good with no lasting ramifications on the ecosystem or the organisms that inhabit it.

Is this not the mission of those who share our outlook: to provide communities lacking a solution with one that solves the problem at its source without causing a rippling of future consequences?

Is it not the vision of those who share our desire to provide the earth with cleaner water so that those affected, and those not yet affected, no longer have to distance themselves from the natural beauty of the world in which we live because of errors made in the past and to prevent those errors from being made again in the future?

Is it not the driving cause of environmental activists globally to create a forum in order to generate a speaking floor for the voices of those who have gone unheard, suffered, and continue to suffer?

Is it so outlandish to believe that today in 2018, an age in which technology has never been more advanced, that environmental scientists have been able to produce the technology which offers a cradle-to-grave answer for the world’s toxic contamination?

There is a solution to the PCB problem, and it exists now. There has never been a better time to address the issue than now. If we allow contamination to persist as we already have it will balloon into a sore which cannot be cured; a cancer on our home planet that will leech the health of the future.

It is our hope here at ecoSPEARS that other states too will soon be able to recognize and acquire the support necessary to restore the status of their communities and ecosystems to their natural potential.

 

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For more information regarding the agencies or organizations mentioned in this blog post, please see a list of the following links:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)

Scenic Hudson

Riverkeeper

Hudson Sloop Clearwater

 

Want to learn more about how ecoSPEARS? Our technology can help your community clean PCBs, PAHs, dioxins and other contaminants from water and soil.

Email our team and let us know where we can help!

Read our study done with NASA and Golder Associates.

Read about the first ever field study done with SPEARS technology.

 

Interested in meeting our team? ecoSPEARS will be attending the following conferences and trade shows:

March 6-7, 2018: Emerging Contaminants Summit
The Westin Westminster
10600 Westminster Blvd.,
Westminster, CO, 80020

April 8-12: Conference on Remediation of Chlorinated and Recalcitrant Compounds
Palm Springs Convention Center
277 North Avenida Caballeros
Palm Springs, CA, 92262

August 22-24, 2018: Georgia Environmental Conference
Jekyll Island, GA

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