There and Back Again: How the Hudson River PCB Problem Persists
Hey there, ecoSPEARS readers! Well, here we are: it’s 2019, almost exactly one year since our name officially hit the books and we started begging you to share our maritime-color schemed logo all over your facebooks and snapgrams. Can you believe it? We certainly can. That’s what happens when you obsess over scientific data and fact day-in, day-out, for months on end that eventually entwine themselves into the years of our lives.
Anyway, where are we? RIGHT. Speaking of scientific data and facts, it seems fitting that here we all area – one year older and wiser – and again we’re seeing and hearing a lot of news outlets and media sources reporting on a very similar issue to what our team here at ecoSPEARS started generating a forum for last year: GE’s Hudson River cleanup. In one of our first ever blog posts, we touched on NYSDEC head Basil Seggos publically faulting GE for failing to “truly” complete their $1.6 billion project of cleaning PCBs from the Hudson River. It wasn’t much longer afterwards that EPA publicly announced their decision to delay GE’s deliver of a Certificate of Completion for the project, which would have rescinded the conglomerate’s liability of future PCB cleanup along the Hudson. EPA cited their wish to peruse the final 5-Year-Review of the project before deciding whether or not to issue the letter.
GE and its spokesman for the Hudson River project, Mark Behan, said that the project had been completed with “all commitments to EPA” in early January of 2018; however US EPA then announced as part of its review it would be working closely with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to evaluate some 1,800 sediment samples taken by NYSDEC from the Upper Hudson in 2017. EPA also announced plans to advance a study along a 43-mile long stretch of Hudson River floodplains from Hudson Falls to Troy, which will include evaluations of ecological and human health risks due to exposure to PCBs in and along the Hudson River from roughly 8,000 more samples taken from some 500 properties along the Hudson. Simultaneously, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and the NYSDEC all threatened to sue US EPA if the agency complied with GE’s request to receive their certificate of completion.
As of January 16th, 2019, GE still has not yet received their certificate of completion from the EPA on their Hudson River cleanup project. While bad news for GE and their wallet, activists and stakeholders agree on the certificate’s delay. After all, samples from PCB-impacted areas along the Hudson have been collected, analyzed, and evaluated as far back as the early 1990s when the EPA began testing areas of the lower Hudson River, from Albany down to New York City, and found that PCBs had migrated downriver towards Manhattan and the Atlantic Ocean. “In terms of the Upper Hudson, we think more can be done,” said Manna Jo Greene who serves as the environmental action director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, “essentially nothing has been done in the Lower Hudson.” Mark Behan, GE’s spokesperson for the Hudson River cleanup project responded by saying, “GE has no obligations in the lower river and all of GE’s obligations is in the upper river.” But a 2006 consent decree put forth by EPA found GE to be liable “for the entire 197-mile Superfund site” of the Hudson River in New York.
These facts raise more questions than they answer; is GE responsible or not for cleanup of PCBs throughout the entire Hudson River? Even if GE were to agree to their liability of the lower Hudson, how much would it cost to remediate the stretch of the river from Albany down to New York City? How long would such a project take?
The longer the problem is left unaddressed and unsolved, the longer the list of questions grows and the more complex the solution becomes to find. Considering all of this it’s no small wonder why PCB removal from the Hudson River is such an intense issue that spans generations of New Yorkers and environmental activists alike, and even smaller wonder why many stakeholders involved with PCB removal projects in the Hudson River fall back on the old adage of demanding “additional dredging is required.” One example of this came from Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro in January of 2018, when he said that GE’s $1.7 billion cleanup not only failed to properly protect human and environmental health, but also that more dredging of the Hudson was required to achieve a “safe and healthy” river and “to create jobs.”
Addressing Molinaro’s comments on the jobs dredging projects bring to communities, we can look at documents from a smaller-scale dredging project on the Lower Passaic River in 2014: Table 4 on page 4 of the document, which outlines the estimated cost and timeline of the project for an 8-mile dredge of the Lower Passaic, estimated the project would create over 4,500 jobs – the majority of which (1,379 or 30% of the total amount) are in construction. If we estimate that a project 20% the size of the Hudson River cleanup creates roughly 4,500 jobs, then a dredging project on a similar scale to GE’s 40-mile cleanup of the upper Hudson could potentially create nearly 23,000 jobs! That’s a heck of an employment boost to any local economy. The downside, however, means that that’s also some 23,000 workers who are under potential risk exposure to toxic PCB contamination, along with the population of the overall community.
So where and how do we find the balance between minimizing future risk to human health, public safety, and the environment? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. This is one of the multitude of complex issues activists, regulators, municipal leaders, communities, and PRPs have to work together and compromise on. But in communities like those along the Hudson River where PCB contamination and cleanup projects have been on-and-off for nearly 40 years, all stakeholders involved can easily become jaded by the subsequent lack of completion to clean the largest source of clean water the adjacent community has. With such deeply-rooted generational distrust and distaste towards spending even more time and more money and more manhours on solutions that may not even solve the underlying problem, what can help retain hope for the situation if not a vision of a cleaner, better future?
Despite nearly a century of legacy PCB contamination in the Hudson River Valley, the region is still an economic hotbed for a variety of industries. As of July 2018, according to Hudson Valley Magazine, colleges in the Hudson Valley employed some 12,500 people and “contribute $4.8 billion to the New York State economy annually.” The Walkway Over the Hudson which connects the two towns of Poughkeepsie and Highland created “383 new jobs, $9.4 million in new wages, and $779,000 in new tax revenues annually” for the two counties on either end of the Walkway. Historic sites such as Hyde Park in Dutchess County alone made a “$65 million impact” on the county’s economy, and the same county’s annual fair in 2013 showed an average of “$23.41 million in spending from outside the county” while generating over 400 jobs and earning another $11 million for the local economy. Another 2017 tourism study showed a 25% increase in the tourism industry in Dutchess County, raking in $601.5 million. Close behind was Ulster County, “which saw a $33 million hike in spending over the past year to $587 million in 2017.” Taking all these numbers into account, the tri-county area of the Mid-Hudson River Valley alone averages over $6 billion and nearly 1,000 new jobs annually in the local economy between jobs, tourism, and academia. Those numbers are nothing to gawk at.
The bottom line is that while GE has arguably completed their Hudson River dredging project to the extent outlined by EPA, many stakeholders disagree with the conglomerate’s stance on “completed”. Ultimately and arguably, what matters in this scenario and others like it are the facts generated by the data. PCB concentrations at levels high enough to threaten human health and the environment still persist throughout the Hudson River, and samples of water and sediment from the Hudson River by EPA and NYSDEC show that PCBs from the Upper Hudson portion of the USA’s largest Superfund site have been – and likely still are – slowly migrating downriver towards Manhattan and New York City, where PCB exposure to the population and environment could spell disaster for GE, stakeholders, and the 8+ million citizens of one of America’s most historic and culturally-rich cities.
So folks, here we are: one year since we began reporting and posting environmental news segments from across the US and sadly, sampling data from the Hudson River Superfund site predicts that the PCB problem for upstate New York is worse than we expected. But we don’t want to start the year or leave this post on a disheartening note! We invite you, dear readers, to subscribe to our monthly newsletter or simply reach out to us here with any questions, comments, or concerns you have about the Hudson River or any other PCB-impacted site in the US. We promise you won’t want to miss out on upcoming ecoSPEARS news for 2019!
As always, thanks for reading. From all of us here at ecoSPEARS, have a wonderful, safe, and green New Year!
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Battelle Sediments Conference
February 11th-14th, 2019
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February 26th-28th, 2019
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