Hudson River Dredging Increases PCB Levels

Published October 1, 2009

Less than three months after EPA’s much-delayed and highly controversial plan to dredge the Hudson River to remove PCBs got underway, the agency’s own monitoring devices show levels of the chemical are rising, not falling.

The findings cast further doubt on a project that is already more than five years behind schedule and $320 million over budget.

Eleven dredging machines, 18 barges, and 18 tugboats are currently at work along a six-mile stretch of the Hudson. Ultimately, EPA’s plan calls for the removal of more than two million cubic yards of PCB-laden sediment, to be deposited in giant landfills in west Texas.

Releasing Contaminants

In late July, levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) along a stretch of the river about 35 miles north of Albany had risen to 442 parts per trillion (ppt), only slightly below the 500 ppt threshold EPA said would require shutting the project down. By August 7 the level had risen to 540 ppt.

EPA’s dredging guidelines stipulate that if PCB levels exceed 500 ppt twice, the agency will have to order a temporary halt to dredging operations. Agency officials scrambled to assure skeptical local residents the spike in PCB levels posed no threat to public health, and EPA announced it would modify its dredging procedures in the hope of reducing contamination to air and water.

The news that EPA’s cleanup of the Hudson is actually contaminating local air and water is but the latest chapter in the long debate over what, if anything, the federal government should do about trace PCB amounts in the river. Two General Electric capacitor plants legally released PCBs into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977.

PCBs were used widely in electrical equipment because of their insulating properties, until Congress banned the use of the chemical compounds in 1976.

The congressional action came on the heels of a landmark study by Renate Kimbrough, then with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who found laboratory rats fed huge amounts of PCBs developed liver cancer.

New Study Dampens Alarm

Nearly a quarter of a century after publishing her initial findings, Kimbrough revisited the subject in a March 1999 peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. In that study, Kimbrough and epidemiologist Martha Doemland found no association between actual human exposure to PCBs and death from cancer or any other disease.

Their study focused on more than 7,000 people who worked from 1946 to 1977 in the exact GE plants on the Hudson where the PCBs were released into the river. It found GE workers were less likely to die of cancer than expected in a statistically similar group of people, both in the region and nationwide.

Ignoring the evidence the gradually decomposing PCBs at the bottom of the Hudson River posed no threat to public health, the Clinton administration began considering removing the chemicals via a vast dredging project. Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner, now the White House energy and environment czar, recommended the project shortly before leaving office in January 2001.

Her successor at EPA, Christine Todd Whitman, gave the green light to the project in December 2001, effectively turning the upper Hudson River into a giant Superfund site.

Costs, Contaminants Rising

As originally conceived, dredging was to get underway in 2003 or 2004, last for an undetermined number of years, and cost $460 million. Dredging didn’t get started until May 2009, however, and the price tag, to be paid by GE, is currently forecast at $780 million and is still rising.

Before EPA mandated the PCB removal, critics warned the agency was vastly underestimating both the cost of the project and the difficulty of containing the PCBs once the dredging got underway. They pointed out PCB levels in the upper Hudson had been falling for years as the contaminants became entombed under successive levels of sediment on the river’s bottom. Dredging, they pointed out, would stir up the chemicals, creating the very problem EPA’s dredging scheme was supposed to solve.

Warnings Ignored

One of those issuing such warnings was Tim Havens, president of Citizen Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation (CEASE), a local group opposed to dredging. Havens says he’s disappointed EPA failed to listen to him and other critics of the project earlier this decade.

“I wish I had been wrong,” Havens said. “But the facts speak for themselves. EPA is making a complete mess of this beautiful river. They need to stop dredging. They need to stop right now. EPA has set back the pace of natural recovery by years. The more they dredge, the more pollution they create.”

The dredging is slated to last for several years, with a target completion date of 2015.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.