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Our World:  Hudson River Cleanup Stirs Controversy - 2001-08-01


In this edition of Our World, VOA's Rosanne Skirble examines the the controversy surrounding the proposed dredging of the Hudson River to clean it of harmful PCB contamination.


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The Hudson river is the longest and most important river in the east coast American state of New York. A 64 kilometer stretch of the Hudson is also the nation's largest toxic waste site. Over a 30 year period ending with a government ban in 1977, the General Electric Company legally dumped 590 million kilograms of pollutants known as PCBs into the river. In 1984, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, targeted the river for cleanup, but it wasn't until last December at the end of the Clinton Administration that the Agency produced a working plan to remove the toxins from the river.

Should the federal government order General Electric to pay the estimated $460 million it will cost to remove the PCBs by dredging, as EPA has recommended? Or should the PCBs remain buried in the river, as opponents who are fearful that dredging would upset the economy of the region and release the suspected cancer-causing chemicals argue.

On a rainy day this May, at a dock in Garrison, New York, a group of school children are introduced to the Hudson River. They live about an hour's drive from the river, but many have never been on it before. They board the Clearwater, a 34 meter replica of the sloops that in the mid-18th century carried cargo up and down the Hudson.

Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger and a handful of river-lovers built and launched the Clearwater 30 years ago to dramatize the river's plight and to move citizens to take action to clean it up. On this day, the school children raise the sail, steer the boat and catch fish off the side in a big net.

Sean Madden runs the education program on board. He says with the passage of national and state clean air and water laws, the Hudson is cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. And, he says, it's up to these kids to keep it that way. "I want them to leave the boat basically feeling good about their experience, to go home and tell their parents that they went on the Hudson today, it was a beautiful place. It was an amazing place, and we should really do something about that. We should learn more. Down the road when they are students of biology or business or whatever (they study) that seed is planted and that connection is there. That will shape the rest of their lives."

The Clearwater sails a narrow stretch of the river framed by hills across from West Point, the United States Military Academy, a place where American history comes alive. The children learn about Henry Hudson, the English navigator who first explored the river in the early 17th century, and about the Revolutionary War battles that took place along its banks. They learn about the artists who set up their easels along the river more than 150 years ago to paint the landscape, and they learn about plankton.

"It's not a bird, it's not a plane. It's not superman. It's plankton," a teacher tells the children. "You guys know about the food chain, don't you. Well, the food chain is really important."

As they look at the plankton with magnifying glasses, one thing these 10-year olds already know is that they cannot eat the fish that eat the plankton. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has posted warning signs up and down the 500 kilometer river. That's because while you can drink the river's water and even swim, boat and wade in it, the sediment contains polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, persistent organic chemicals that the United States Environmental Protection Agency says are probable carcinogens and may cause neurological problems. PCBs have contaminated the plankton, which then contaminate the fish that eat them.

The PCBs in the river come from two General Electric Company plants on the Hudson that manufactured electric capacitors, important components in the transmission of electric current. Steve Ramsey, Vice President of Environmental Programs for General Electric, says beginning in the 1930s GE used PCBs as an insulating material in the manufacturing process. The chemicals were long-lived, could tolerate high temperatures and wouldn't explode or catch fire. "In fact PCBs were recommended, if not required by fire and building codes and (by) insurance companies which would rate electrical equipment recommended that they be used," Mr. Ramsey says. "So they were viewed for 40 or 50 years as a life saving chemical, as an important part of keeping people safe in the generation of electricity."

Banned in the United States since 1977, PCBs were targeted for worldwide elimination by a United Nations treaty in May. General Electric's Steve Ramsey says the company has accepted full responsibility for PCBs in the Hudson River sediment and bedrock at company facilities. He says over the last 20 years, GE has spent more than $200 million on research, investigation and cleanup. "And, in the course of doing that we have seen the levels of PCBs in fish drop by 90 percent since 1977, by more than 60 percent since 1984 and we have managed to control PCBs that are in the fractured bedrock underneath this plant, which is where PCBs are now coming from."

Steve Ramsey says it makes little sense to dig the PCBs up and move them elsewhere, and instead suggests a natural healing process in which the toxins would degrade over time. But, the company is actively plugging the leaks in the bedrock, a plan they call source control. The banks of one upriver plant are laced with pipes and well-drilling rigs that drain PCBs into the river from underground fissures.

"Source control is not your answer," says Ann Rychlenski, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency in New York. "That's the main problem, what is coming out of the sediments. It's important to turn that faucet off there at the Hudson Falls plant site, but what is down there in the sediment is far worse than what is coming in."

Ms. Rychlenski, says the EPA plan announced last December calls for the cleanup of 64 kilometers of river bottom including some 40 hotspots listed under the federal Superfund Toxic Waste Act, a law that requires polluters to pay to repair environmental damage. "After 10 years, almost eleven years of very, very intensive peer-reviewed scientific study, the EPA has recommended a targeted dredging program, and we would address the most severely contaminated and easily accessible as well as the areas where fish feed because the threat here to humans is through the consumption of contaminated fish."

Dredging was the major topic of three months of public hearings in New York that ended in April. Since then EPA has received 36,000 e-mails and 72,000 written comments on the initiative. While a final decision on the proposal won't be made until September, it has divided people in the state on the best way, or even whether, to remove the contaminants from the Hudson.

The governor, environmental groups, and citizens along the southern reaches of the river favor dredging, while General Electric and some residents of the 50 communities near targeted hotspots in the north oppose it. EPA says the job would take five years. Opponents say that's unrealistic and expect the work would disrupt community life for more than double that time.

General Electric launched a multi-million dollar anti-dredging campaign on radio, television and in newspapers last spring coinciding with the period of public comment on the EPA proposal. GE executive Steve Ramsey says the purpose of the campaign was to promote a robust discussion on the issue. "That people who live up here should understand what's about to happen to them and to the quality of their lives and to the river they live next to. And, also because there was only one voice for a very long time, and that voice was EPA's," Mr. Ramsey said. "There needs to be more than one side of the story told. We felt that it was extraordinarily important that the other side of the PCB and the dredging story be told so that the people could have enough information to make up their own minds."

Marilyn Polver never thought twice. She says dredging is a bad idea for Fort Edward, where she is the town supervisor. And the constituents who gathered for a meeting in her office one morning agree. One sells farm machinery, another runs a marina and a third owns a local restaurant. They say dozens of barges and boats working around the clock will upset the economy and daily life of Fort Edward and other upper Hudson River communities. They believe that the PCBs are buried in the sediment and would rather leave them where they are - rather than risk stirring them up and causing more trouble.

"The only exposure people have to PCBs in their bodies in the Hudson River is from eating contaminated fish," says anti-dredge advocate Tim Havens. "PCB levels in fish have continued to go down. PCB levels in fish are still not going to be safe for human consumption even if this dredging project is allowed to go through. The project is not to remove the whole of the PCB contamination in the Hudson River, only a small part. The targeted goal of EPA's is 100,000 pounds of PCBs out of the 1.3 million pounds known to have been discharged into the river. For 100,000 pounds of PCBs they intend to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards, over 9 billion pounds for 100,000 pounds of PCB reclamation. That means 80,000 pounds of dredging for every one pound of PCBs to be reclaimed. To me that's like buying a 747 airplane to get a bag of free peanuts."

"Speaking as a chef," adds Neil Orsini, another Fort Edward resident, "this just boggles my mind that this entire project is being undertaken simply so people can eat fish. There is no way that I would eat a fish out of the Hudson River, not only because of the PCBs, but also because of the chromium, the cadmium, the lead, the mercury. What else is down there? Man has used the Hudson River as a toilet and a sewer for one hundred years."

"This is all going to be accomplished by subcontractors," says Mr. Havens. "There's the human element. There's the operator who overshoots the barge and releases the clamshell machinery. There's the breech in the line and the hydraulic dredges so that a thousand or two thousand pounds of material is resuspended in the river and goes undetected for half an hour or an hour and goes downstream. The devastation to the river's sub-aquatic life, 90 acres of river bottom is to be dredged, is overwhelming. This is a project that just does not stand on its own merit."

"I employ 28 people from high school kids to people (on) their first step off welfare, to single moms supporting a family, 28 people dependent on the tourism industry in this area for their jobs," says Mr. Orsini. "If they dredge, those jobs are gone."

"It's going to be a long time, if ever, (that) they get a dredge in the Hudson River," adds Mr. Havens. "(That's) because the citizen outcry, the public outcry up here, the common people, the taxpayers, the homeowners, the little working class people is so overwhelming that there is no way that they are going to allow this dredging to take place, and I don't know but these people may stop at nothing sort of violence to make sure it is stopped."

"The chance of being contaminated is nil," adds another Fort Edward resident, Judy Schmidt Dean. "There is virtually no chance of getting any PCB contamination in this area, and to completely devastate the area for that reason is not acceptable."

"The community itself is not afraid of PCBs," says resident Marilyn Polver. "People here have lived with them, worked with them. Their parents have worked with them. Their grandparents have worked with them. The health threat issue is ridiculous."

But, other Fort Edward residents disagree, like Pam Brooks and the friends she invited to her home one warm evening. They are concerned that a storm or a flood could stir up the contaminants. Pam Brooks moved to Fort Edward 22 years ago to grieve a failed romance. Her friends, who have lived in the area much of their adult lives, worry about PCBs and are weary of what they call "the relentless General Electric media campaign."

"Having the river right outside my window when I get up in the morning is like a living landscape," Ms. Brooks said. "Sometimes the river is pink. Sometimes it is slate blue. It's always beautiful and it refreshes my soul. It's a wonderful place to live. It's amazing with all this beauty that we have very little industry and commerce here and the reason for that is PCBs."

"You go into this beautiful pristine area of the river, and then you look on the (navigational) chart and you realize that you are boating over a hazardous waste dump," added pro-dredge resident David Mathais. "This really needs to be cleaned. It needs to be restored. The beauty of this river needs to be developed."

"Although we have an opportunity to boost our economy with a boating community, that has also been held back because of the buildup of silt," resident Joanne Fuller says.

"Right out here in front of my house is the east branch of Hudson River which is part of the Chaplain Canal," Ms. Brooks says. "This area has not been dredged for 22 years. We cannot get boats like tour boats in here. So, we desperately need dredging, but we can't have dredging until this PCB thing is resolved."

"We can change all that," says Mr. Mathais. "This area is beautiful. This area could be a designated vacation area. Unfortunately, it just isn't."

"Part of what's going on here is politics and big business," adds Ms. Brooks.

"And General Electric has done a wonderful job convincing people that those 200,000 pounds of PCBs are going to stay there buried, and they are not going anywhere," says Marion Trieste, also a Fort Edward resident.

"Yeah, a lot of people bought the message!" says Ms. Brooks.

"This is not an ad campaign selling General Electric dish washers or light bulbs. This was an ad campaign that had a distinct effect on public policy," said Ms. Trieste. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responsible for protecting human health and the environment is not budgeted to spend millions of dollars weekly to educate the public. And that's a very important message for people around the world to understand international corporations and the power they have to manipulate people's minds through corporate dollars and basically take over our public airwaves."

"This is a precedent setting situation," says Ms. Brooks. "So, if they have to take the hit here and dig deep for $500 million, they are going to get hit everywhere else. We have to buck up. Do the right thing. Clean up the mess and get on with it."

But, it's the health issue that has convinced scientists like David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York in Albany, that the river must be cleaned of toxins. "In my judgment the health effects of PCBs are so serious that to do nothing is simply not a viable option," he said. "I think that the people of the upper Hudson have almost no understanding of the diseases that are caused by PCB exposure."

David Carpenter says PCBs from contaminated fish can remain stored in human body fat for 10 years, which puts a baby at risk during childbirth. He says PCBs are a known animal carcinogen, a suspected human carcinogen, and recent studies link PCBs with a weakened immune system, developmental and reproductive disorders.

General Electric partly paid for and widely publicized a 1999 mortality study of GE workers that found no association between exposure to PCBs and deaths from cancer or any other diseases. But David Carpenter says systematic research of the population needs to be done to access the potential health risks. "Certainly people that worked in factories where there are PCBs are at risk of exposure. And, the overwhelming evidence, in spite of the propaganda that General Electric has been giving, is that people who work and are exposed at work are at risk for a number of diseases," he said.

David Carpenter says health officials must do a better job informing the public of those risks.

Geologist Richard Bopp with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York says he is concerned with the misinformation that he says surrounds the debate. He says while dredging opponents are confident that PCBs are locked in the Hudson River sediment, that's not the case. "Even in these areas where sediments are depositing year after year, layer after layer, the rates of sediment accumulation are only on the order of a centimeter or so a year," Mr. Bopp said. "So, the most highly contaminated sediments are less than a foot (30 centimeters) or so below the surface. In addition to that, it is quite rare in a river to find areas where the sediments are depositing continuously year after year, layer upon layer. And the PCB contaminated sediment is constantly being churned up, moved and transported during high flow events, especially."

That could be the storms or floods that Pam Brooks and her friends worry about. Richard Bopp advocates removal of the contaminated sediment, but warns that it must proceed with vigilance and caution.

But, what is it going to take to make the plan work? That depends who you ask. Environmental groups have staged public rallies, spoken at hearings, held candle light vigils and lobbied state and national officials in support of the EPA proposal to dredge the river.

Ned Sullivan, Executive Director of Scenic Hudson, one of the leading conservation groups supporting the government's plan, says General Electric's response in the Hudson River Valley could have international repercussions. "If GE won't clean up one of its sites in the Hudson River Valley, an important national river valley of international significance, what is it going to do in another country? What is it going to do in the European market? What is it going to do in a developing country where no one is watching and where there aren't the vigilant environmental groups like there are here in the Hudson Valley?" he said. "General Electric is going to dump and run. General Electric must be held accountable and General Electric should stop trying to undermine this important federal program and the international example it provides."

General Electric executive Steve Ramsey says getting the job done is a matter of common sense, good science and the wishes of the community in the region. He argues that the government plan would be less effective and more harmful than on going efforts at GE facilities. "There are really so many unanswered questions and gaps in information and failure to evaluate risks in the EPA proposal that it really is far too dangerous and far too ill advised to try to move forward with the program until those questions are answered and until a real evaluation is made of the source control alternative that we have proposed," Mr. Ramsey said.

Steve Ramsey says he is not convinced that the EPA plan can be implemented. He says the proposal does not say where the 3.6 million kilograms of dredged material will be transported and buried, where the two projected hazardous waste processing and treatment plants will be built, or what technology will be used to control any repollution by the contaminants. Also, he says, the plan fails to evaluate the impact of the disruption to local communities.

Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Ann Rychlenski says after decades of study, it is time to act. And she is confident her agency can go in and do a good job. "The Hudson is a very precious resource, and it tugs at your heart strings in a lot of ways because it is a sick river and it's sick because of PCBs. And GE's arguments notwithstanding, the scientific community at large agrees that PCBs are bad for you, and we need to get them out of there, and if we can let's do it," she says. "As long as it is scientifically and from an engineering standpoint possible and safe and certainly will improve the system, I think most people realize that it is a job, large as it is, daunting as it may be, and politically controversial that it may be really should be done."

The EPA proposal made during the Clinton Administration must be resolved under the Bush Administration, which has added to its uncertainty. But The New York Times reported EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has issued a decision to go ahead with the dredging plan, but to implement it in stages with stops along the way to test it. The draft order will not be made public until later this month to give New York State officials time to review the plan.

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