Summer was in full swing in Fort Edward, New York. On a hot July day last year, a family gathered around a picnic table in Bradley Park, which juts out into the Hudson River. Across the glittering water, two bare-chested men in jeans cast fishing poles near a paper plant. And next to a velvety-green baseball field, kids shrieked and splashed in a pool. Yet just to the left, in the western channel along Rogers Island, an activity was taking place that was hardly a typical warm-weather pastime.
On a rust-red barge with “Poseidon” stenciled on the side, two dozen workers in hard hats sent wild celery and other plants down tubes to divers, who planted them in a grid along the river bottom. A far cry from hauling old tires out of the water, the underwater gardening session was part of what is thought to be one of the country’s largest-ever river cleanup efforts. The multiyear project is focused on ridding the Upper Hudson of some of its 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs — at a cost estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of between $1 and $2 billion.
It was in 2009 that cleanup crews hired by General Electric first got to work clearing PCB-laden sediment from the river. After all, the PCBs — chemicals thought to cause cancer — had been discharged from a nearby pair of GE factories over a three-decade period, from around World War II until the 1970s. In addition, PCB contamination is the main reason why people should be wary about eating striped bass or other fish caught between Fort Edward and Manhattan’s tip, almost 200 miles away.
Phase I of the cleanup attracted massive media attention; it was the culmination of a decades-long fight pitting environmental groups against a mighty corporation. But in many ways that effort, which targeted a six-mile stretch of the river over a six-month period, was a mere dress rehearsal for the main event: Phase II, which kicked off last summer and could last another five to seven years. This part of the project — which seeks to remove 2.4 million cubic yards of PCB-ridden sediment from the 40-mile stretch of river that extends from Fort Edward, past forests, fields, and villages, and over a few waterfalls, to the Federal Dam in Troy — is expected to cost $1 billion.
But with such a distant completion date, no one is immediately celebrating the restoration of the Hudson, which for decades was considered by many to be an open sewer. And it’s not even certain that the cleanup’s approach — which is to dig out the muck and haul it away, then replace it with fresh soil and plants — will actually improve water quality. In fact, some scientists claim dredging up the PCBs will make the river’s pollution worse.
The explanation of how this historic environmental undertaking came about is as long and winding as the river itself. And the story of what this massive, 24-hour-a-day dredging operation really entails? That makes for a pretty good yarn, too.
Photograph courtesy of Scenic Hudson
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In 1886, Thomas Edison moved his Edison Machine Works, which made generators, to a site along the Erie Canal in the rapidly growing industrial center of Schenectady. In 1892 that company merged with other manufacturers to form General Electric, which rolled out lights, engines, phonographs, and other must-have devices. In search of more space in the 1930s, GE built a factory in Fort Edward that produced parts for the defense effort during World War II. A few years later, the company also took over a red-brick factory a few blocks away in Hudson Falls.
GE’s goal was to get power to a suburbanizing America. Specifically, it produced capacitors, those gray, trash can-sized objects that are clumped high on utility poles and control electrical output. As housing developers began to cut streets through farmland for subdivisions, those capacitors were suddenly in high demand.
But capacitors could burn up if they got too hot. So — to keep suburban streets from catching fire after people ran too many TVs and hair dryers — GE encased the capacitors in PCBs, which had first been manufactured commercially in the late 1920s and were used at the GE plants as a coolant. As business boomed, the PCBs flowed. From the beginning, they were discharged down pipes into the Hudson, or leaked into a water-filled underground passageway beneath the two plants and flushed back into the river.
At the time, GE was legally permitted to dispose of PCBs in the Hudson. While reports of the health dangers of PCBs first started circulating as early as the 1930s — a 1936 article published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workers who made PCB products suffered problems including skin lesions and digestive disturbances — it was not until 1979 that the EPA banned their manufacture. Still, the long-term effects of human exposure to PCBs — which some studies show cause cancer in rats — are hard to measure over the long term. They are only considered a probable human carcinogen by the EPA, although according to the agency, studies have shown that workers exposed to them have increased amounts of rare liver cancer and malignant melanoma. The EPA also reports that research has linked the chemicals to birth defects and elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. (Since no controlled studies with human subjects have been performed, a definitive link between PCB exposure and these health problems has not been established.)
Awareness of how badly the Fort Edward area was polluted came in 1973, with the removal of an old dam that spanned the river a short distance from the factories. Lurking behind that crumbling structure was a huge mound of PCB-laden mud. Removing the barrier sent a wave of toxic sludge downstream, causing PCB levels in the river to spike almost instantly. A New York State study performed on residents from Fort Edward, Hudson Falls, and neighboring Glens Falls showed that those with higher PCB levels in their bloodstreams scored lower on short-term memory tests and had more symptoms of depression, data that is consistent with other PCB research. In 1984, a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City, was declared a federal Superfund site — a designation reserved for the most toxic places in the country.
What rankles many cleanup advocates is not so much that GE was a polluter, but that it postponed the inevitable for so long. According to environmental advocacy groups, in the 1970s GE threatened to relocate its factories outside New York if it was held responsible for contamination. In the 1990s, the company launched a major marketing campaign in Fort Edward to convince residents that large-scale dredging was a bad idea. Those TV and radio ads, which some residents remember as being ubiquitous, may have prompted community opposition to the project. Specifically, residents challenged the burying of PCB sludge in nearby landfills as well as noise from the dredging operations and the increased presence of trucks.
Finally, in 2002, GE agreed to dredge — but only after the EPA ordered them to, critics point out. “They have been a difficult ‘responsible party,’ because they have been persistently resistant,” says Manna Jo Greene, the environmental director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in Beacon. “They fought the cleanup every step of the way, including a massive disinformation campaign and using whatever legal mechanisms were available.”
GE has a different spin on it. “What you don’t see is the enormous cleanup work that GE was doing in this period” of the 1980s and 1990s, says Mark Behan, GE’s spokesman, who added that once the more intensive cleanup was mandated by Washington, it agreed to it. Besides, the Fort Edward factory — which still makes capacitors (without PCBs) — employs nearly 300 people. “GE has been a major force for good economically in Upstate New York for 100 years,” Behan said, “and a leader for environmental cleanup.”
Throughout the years of back and forth, a group of scientists has adamantly claimed that dredging is not the answer. Some have said that the best way to deal with the problem is to leave the PCBs alone and allow nature break them down over time. Scooping them up, the anti-dredging activists add, would send toxic particles floating downstream. And to some extent, that view was validated after the first round of dredging in 2009, when PCB levels did increase by a factor of at least 25, according to Robert Michaels, Ph.D., the president of RAM TRAC Corp., a health-risk assessment consulting firm in Schenectady. In fact, he says, free-floating PCB particles won’t settle back down in mud again for 46 years under the best-case predictions, which means the next few decades of dredging will make things worse than if nothing had been done at all.
Places like Westchester County “are where those things are going,” Michaels says. “They go long distances for long periods of time without resting. The dredging made the PCBs available in a way they weren’t when they were buried. Before they could be broken down at a microbial level, but now they are exposed and can make their way into other ecosystems. For example, they’ll be absorbed by fish and passed on to birds who eat the fish, and consequently people who hunt the birds.”
The EPA does not agree with Michaels’ assessment. They say that, although PCB levels in the water spiked initially, they dropped soon after the dredging ended “so there was no long-term damage to the river,” Enck says. Still, the agency did institute some procedural changes after Phase I. Initially, 37 percent of the PCBs — those in tough-to-dredge areas — were “capped” with stone. In Phase II, just 11 percent of the areas must be capped, with an allowance of up to 21 percent if the concentration of PCBs is more severe than expected. Similarly, scoops have to dig deeper this time, to grab more muck, so the chances of it spreading downstream are minimized.
And how does the dredging affect life in Fort Edward? In the small downtown area along Broadway, “for rent” signs are fastened to empty storefronts near a pawn shop and Sass ’n Class Department Store. Across the street, a mural bears the slogan “By river, by road, by rail, all paths lead to Fort Edward” above a two-masted ship cruising on water the color of sapphires. “We’re lucky we still have a paper mill here. That’s almost a fluke,” says Paul McCarty, director of the Fort Edward Historical Association, of a village in which the population is half of what it was a century ago.
A six-generation resident, McCarty remembers how his mother worked in GE’s Fort Edward factory during World War II testing gun sights. Perhaps that connection explains his unwillingness to take a stand about whether the dredging is a positive development, although he did say that now that the project is underway, the issue is not as divisive as it once was. For him, the greater concern is that Fort Edward’s name has become like Bhopal or Chernobyl in other people’s eyes. “It’s still, ‘Oh, you’re from that PCB place?’ ” he says. But with the dredging, economic help — at least in the short term — may have arrived: the cleanup employs 500 people, most of them local, who work on 100 barges and boats during dredging season.
Another paradox may be Jim Flynn, a retired nurse from nearby Glens Falls who is in or on the river “three times a day” despite the PCBs. Wiry and wearing athletic sandals, Flynn was checking out the Hudson to admire how the winter’s floods had exposed the ruins of an old factory. But while many residents have become inured to their fate, Flynn still seems to harbor a tinge of bitterness about getting a raw deal all those decades ago. “I’m not an environmental freak,” he says, gazing down at the river’s glittering ripples. “But trashing a place really bothers me.”