State of the Planet

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GE Agrees to Phase 2 of Hudson River Cleanup

On December 17, the General Electric Company (GE) notified the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it will conduct Phase 2 of the Hudson River cleanup operation and pay for it. The dredging, expected to resume in late spring 2011, will be conducted in accordance with EPA’s requirements for the second phase of the project which it released on December 17, 2010. GE, which dumped approximately of 1.3 million pounds of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Upper Hudson from 1947 to 1977, is responsible for cleaning up the hazardous waste under the Superfund law.  The company will be required to “employ considerably more rigorous dredging procedures” than it did in Phase 1 of the cleanup. GE has already begun to refine the engineering design for Phase 2, based on technical discussions with EPA and recommendations from a panel of independent scientists who reviewed Phase 1 of the project, and will submit its plans to EPA for review and approval in February.

Former GE plant at Hudson Falls – Photo credit: Riverkeeper

PCBs, once used as insulating agents in the manufacture of electrical equipment, are organic pollutants listed by the EPA as possible human carcinogens and are linked to nervous, reproductive, endocrine, and immune system damage. They persist in the environment and the human body—indefinitely.  As early as 1938, studies revealed that PCBs posed health and safety problems, but GE continued their use. PCBs were finally banned in the U.S. in 1977, but they were making their way up the food chain and eventually they destroyed the once thriving fishing industry along the Hudson River. Women of child bearing age and children under age 15 are still advised not to eat any fish from the Hudson River because of PCB contamination, and no one should eat fish caught between the Federal Dam at Troy and Hudson Falls.

In 1984, the 200-mile stretch of the PCB-contaminated Hudson below the GE plants at Fort Edward and nearby Hudson Falls became the EPA’s largest Superfund site. Over the years, GE spent millions of dollars on a media campaign to persuade the public that dredging the PCBs was not necessary and would harm the environment, and in 2000, launched a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Superfund law, which it finally lost in June 2010. After years of legal and PR wrangling, GE was finally forced to begin its cleanup of the Hudson in May 2009.

The Hudson River cleanup is being overseen by the EPA with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as support agency. EPA’s Record of Decision of 2002 laid out the objectives for the cleanup: “Removal of all PCB-contaminated sediments within areas targeted for remediation,” reduction of PCB concentrations in fish and river water, and minimizing the amount of PCBs transported downstream. Phase 1 of the plan required GE to dredge 10 percent of the PCB-contaminated sediment from a six-mile stretch of the Hudson near Fort Edward, under extensive monitoring. Phase 2, scheduled to begin in spring 2011, will entail the full-scale cleanup of the remaining contamination.  GE had retained the right to opt out of Phase 2, but had it done so, the EPA could have completed the project itself and forced GE to reimburse it for the costs.

Dredging – Photo credit: Riverkeeper

Phase 1, which ended in November 2009, resulted in the removal of 293,000 cubic yards of PCB-laden sediment from 10 out of 18 targeted areas. Dewatered sediment was transferred by rail to a landfill in Texas. The results were evaluated by EPA, GE and an independent peer review panel against engineering performance standards (EPS) established by the EPA. The EPS aim to minimize PCBs transported downstream and PCBs left in the sediment, and ensure completion of the project within five years. Additional standards deal with air quality, noise, lighting, odor and navigation.

GE’s evaluation of Phase 1 reported that dredging released 25 percent more PCBs into the Upper Hudson than the EPA had expected, and that the federal drinking water standard of 500 parts per trillion had been exceeded ten times. As a result, GE wanted adjustments made to the EPS that would limit the mass of PCBs to be removed, and include the option to cap more areas—leaving PCBs behind in the sediment. In Phase 1, a total of 37 percent of the area was capped, despite multiple dredging passes, leaving PCBs in the sediment; 15 percent of the capping was unavoidable, due to physical obstructions in the river.

EPA’s final assessment of Phase 1 recommended raising the amount of PCBs to be removed, and suggested that dredging operations and processes be improved to increase productivity and reduce the stirring up of PCBs.

After reviewing both EPA’s and GE’s final reports, the peer review panel concluded that none of the EPS had been met during Phase 1, and could not be met in Phase 2 without substantive changes. It recommended that Year 1 of Phase 2 starting in the spring, collect additional data to refine the EPS, which would then be applied for the remainder of the project. Additional review during each year of Phase 2 should allow for modification of the EPS to enhance PCB removal and the five‐year time frame should be dropped so that the project can be thoroughly completed.

When GE proposed to delay the start of Phase 2, suggesting instead that it continue dredging in 2011 to collect more data, after which EPA would establish Phase 2 standards, the DEC and environmental groups Clearwater, Natural Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson urged the EPA to issue EPS that ensure removal of PCBs to the standards set in 2002, and to require GE to commence Phase 2 in spring 2011 as scheduled.

EPA’s Phase 2 requirements set a limit of 11 percent of the total project area (outside of areas where capping is unavoidable) that can be capped. In Phase 2 GE will be required to remove 95 percent or more of the PCBs in the target areas, which will mean that dredging will need to dig deeper into the sediment and attempt to remove more PCB-laden sediment more efficiently. GE, which claims it has already spent $561 million on Phase 1, may end up spending over $1 billion. Phase 2 is expected to take between five and seven years.

Environmental groups said the standards for Phase 2 were a compromise because GE will be allowed to cap PCBs in up to 11 percent of the total project area. But GE’s decision is a victory for some of the groups that have been pushing for the cleanup for decades.

EPA Region 2 Administrator, Judith Enck said, “EPA has advanced a PCB cleanup plan that will require the removal of huge quantities of PCBs, making the Hudson River cleaner for future generations.”

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Jennifer Mendez
Jennifer Mendez
13 years ago

This is a great post, thank you. I never knew anything about the specific issues with the water quality in the Hudson (except the well known maxim, “Don’t swim in that, it’s gross”).

Will there be any updates on this post? If not, is there information readily available on the GE or EPA website regarding this project?

13 years ago

Thanks, Jennifer.

I will update the post when GE makes its decision about whether or not to conduct Phase 2. Meanwhile here are the urls for EPA’s Hudson Web site and GE’s:

13 years ago

Wow. Thank you for posting. I met someone who had started a group that stands behind Reclaiming the Hudson while in NY in 2009 – we spoke briefly so now I understand more fully what the issues are. I can’t believe that GE was able to continue use of those pollutants for as long as it did. Unbelievable!

Fly Shop
Fly Shop
12 years ago

Why did GE proposed to delay the start of Phase 2 again? I’m still confused here. Any ideas on that point?