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Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric (GE) dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River. The source of the PCB discharges was two GE capacitor manufacturing plants located in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, New York, about 50 miles north of Albany. GE’s PCBs are now found in sediment, water and wildlife throughout the Hudson River ecosystem as far south as the New York Harbor. They are also found in people.
On May 15, 2009, after decades of debate, advocacy and negotiations, GE began Phase 1 of the long-delayed clean-up of those PCBs. Phase 1 dredging was scheduled to run for approximately 6 months in the upper Hudson and remove approximately 10% of the PCBs slated to be removed. Phase 2 will remove most of remaining targeted contaminants and operate for several years.
At the conclusion of Phase 1, various reports, evaluations and negotiations occurred as to the scope of Phase 2, with public involvement, pursuant to the agreement between GE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 2006 Consent Decree. In December of 2010 GE announced that it would perform Phase 2.
It is important to note that the Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), a process that evaluates environmental damage and injuries associated with the GE PCB contamination, is ongoing. The NRDA will assess the damages caused by the PCBs that may be compensated, whether monetarily or through restoration projects, by GE.
Riverkeeper will continue its work to see that the full clean-up occurs, that the NRDA process is thorough and that the Hudson River is restored.
1947 to 1977 – GE discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of PCBs from its capacitor manufacturing plants at the Hudson Falls and Fort Edward facilities into the Hudson River.
1970 – Journalist and Riverkeeper Founder, Bob Boyle, has 5 striped bass from the Hudson River near Verplanck tested for pollutants. The results show abnormally high levels of PCBs. Boyle shares findings with the NY State DEC Fisheries Director. The findings are suppressed.
1977 – PCBs are banned in the U.S. and Hudson River levels decline significantly once GE stops active dumping (but do not meet the levels considered safe for human consumption).
1983 – EPA classifies the 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River, from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City, as a Superfund site under the Superfund law.
1985 – DEC closes commercial striped bass fisheries in New York Harbor and waters off western Long Island.
2001 – GE files a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Superfund law. A federal judge throws out the suit in 2003. GE appeals and in 2004, a federal Court of Appeals reverses the ruling and sends the case back to the district court for a hearing on the merits of GE’s claim.
2006 – After battling for two decades to avoid the cleanup project, GE agrees to begin testing for PCB hotspots in the Hudson and contract with environmental specialists to dredge contaminated sediments from the river.
2008 – EPA accepts GE’s plan to remove a third less contaminated river sediment than they agreed to remove.
May, 2009 – Phase 1 dredging begins.
The harmful effects of PCBs are well documented and led to the banning of PCBs in the United States in 1977. Human consumption of PCBs, through eating PCB-contaminated food, can cause liver, kidney and nervous system disorders, as well as developmental and reproductive abnormalities. PCBs have been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and are classified by the EPA as probable human carcinogens.
Animals who are exposed to PCBs cannot rid them them from their bodies. PCBs instead concentrate in tissues and organs and bioaccumulate. Bioaccumulation is a process by which environmental contaminants increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. As larger fish eat smaller fish, PCB levels in fish can become thousands of times higher than PCB levels in the river. People are highest on the food chain.
The New York State Department of Health (DOH) advises women of childbearing age and children under 15 to not eat fish from the Hudson River south of Hudson Falls (see: PCBs and Infant Development and PCBs and the Infant Brain). The DOH also recommends that no individual eat any fish caught between Hudson Falls and the Federal Dam in Troy.
In 1976, the NY State DEC banned the commercial harvest of virtually all the Hudson’s commercially viable species, including striped bass, eel, carp, catfish and perch (see: Body Burdens of Persistent Pollutants in Hudson River Anglers). GE’s discharge of PCBs into the Hudson is therefore responsible for destroying what was a centuries-old fishing industry and river-based culture.
The New York State Department of Health (DOH) advises women of childbearing age and children under 15 to not eat fish from the Hudson River south of Hudson Falls (see: PCBs and Infant Development and PCBs and the Infant Brain). The DOH also recommends that no individual eat any fish caught between Hudson Falls and the Federal Dam in Troy. Rather, any fish caught should be released back into the river (see: Health Advisory on Eating Fish Caught in the Hudson River on the EPA site).
GE says a “thriving catch-and-release system” on the river proves that the river and its surrounding communities are prospering. The ability to catch and eat fish, as opposed to just catch and release fish, however, is the standard by which the river’s health should be determined.
Despite these health advisories, surveys show that most people catch and eat PCB-laden Hudson River fish and share their catch with friends and family. The EPA has found that the cancer risk from eating fish from the upper Hudson exceeds the EPA protection goal by 700 times (see: PCBs and Human Health on the EPA site).
When the public was first informed of the PCB contamination of the Hudson in the mid-1970s, General Electric threatened to relocate its facilities—and the jobs and tax base they provided—outside the state if it was held responsible for the contamination. GE went as far as issuing notices to its workers at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls that PCBs were a phony controversy cooked up by environmentalists to destroy their jobs.
GE spent millions of dollars fighting the Hudson River cleanup. It launched an aggressive ad campaign in print, radio and television in an effort to buy public support for its anti-dredging position. The message that reverberated said dredging is unnecessary, environmentally unsound, and damaging to local economies.
In addition to the Hudson River PCB Superfund Site, GE has 75 Superfund sites nationwide, more than any other U.S. corporation. Being forced to take full responsibility for cleanup at those 75 sites would indeed have a material impact on GE’s financial performance.
In 2001, GE reported revenues exceeding $100 billion. The company has reassured its stockholders since the 1999 Annual Report that the cost of remediation would not substantially affect its finances.
According to the New York Times, from 1996 to 1998, GE as the nation’s #1 corporate polluter was also the nation’s biggest beneficiary of corporate tax breaks, saving $6.9 billion in taxes for that three-year period. In 1999, the company paid a mere $2.1 billion in income taxes on $25.8 billion in profits, for a tax rate of 8.1% — a fraction of the rates other U.S. corporations pay.
One of the ways to do this is by attacking EPA’s ability to hold companies responsible for the pollution they created. This translates into a direct attack on the Superfund Program itself. GE has a staff of 17 high-powered lobbyists in DC that work to undo the company’s Superfund liability. GE has also challenged the constitutionality of the Superfund law that authorizes EPA to order polluters to clean up their contamination.
• In 1983, the EPA classified the 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River, from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City, as a Superfund site under the Superfund law.
• Under the Superfund law, a polluter is liable for the cleanup of its environmental contamination (see more in About Superfund on the EPA site).
• After over a decade of study, the EPA has concluded that PCBs pose a serious health risk to human health and the environment (see PCBs: Impacts on Ecological and Human Health and Responsiveness Summary and Record of Decision on the EPA site).
• The EPA Plan calls for the removal of 100,000 pounds of PCBs from the upper Hudson River.
• The plan forces GE to pay the approximately $460 million it will cost to dredge contaminated hot spots from the river.
• The EPA Plan received bi-partisan support from an impressive array of public officials who understand the need to move forward with a Hudson River cleanup.
On May 15, 2009, GE began the long-delayed clean-up of the Hudson River! Although the project is slated to operate 24 hours per day, due to changes in the river flow, the actual number of hours of dredging was far lower.
Currently the dredging is in Phase 1, which is scheduled to run for approximately 6 months in the upper Hudson and remove only 10% of the PCBs slated to be removed. Phase 2 will remove the remaining targeted contaminants and operate for several years.
GE has not committed to performing the full scope of the dredging remediation. At the conclusion of Phase 1, various reports and evaluations will occur (with opportunity for public involvement). Pursuant to an agreement between GE and EPA in a 2006 Consent Decree: GE will then announce whether it intends to perform Phase 2. Riverkeeper will continue its work to see that the full clean-up occurs.
Please visit www.hudsondredgingdata.com for EPA’s updates including data collected from the dredging at different points in the Hudson, as well as from the various forms of environmental and public safety monitoring which is ongoing.
Contact information for public concerns:
Hudson River Field Office
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Region 2
Kristen Skopeck, Community Involvement Coordinator
Hudson River Field Office
421 Lower Main St.
Hudson Falls, NY 12839
(866) 615-6490 toll-free
Phase I of the long-delayed GE PCB Hudson dredging remediation plan, conducted by GE and supervised by EPA, has now concluded. By the end of October, dredging crews had removed about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment, compared to a removal target of about 265,200 cubic yards. Over 620 barges filled with sediment were transported to the processing facility on the Champlain Canal, and over 80 rail cars transported to the dredged sediment to a waste facility in Texas. Approximately 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment had not been expected – this excess contamination was found at deeper levels than the core samples had indicated. Thus, according to EPA, the true scope of Phase I was really about 100,000 cubic yards more than planned, and Phase II will be expanded as a consequence. EPA and GE are now separately preparing reports assessing the dredging and related data, which, in the coming months, will be submitted to an independent peer review panel, and to the public, for evaluation. Although pursuant to the 2006 Consent Decree, GE retains the option to elect not to do Phase II, and is currently pursuing a law suit to declare the Superfund law unconstitutional, many environmentalists and EPA are hopeful that Phase II will commence as soon as possible and certainly by 2011 at the latest. Riverkeeper is following the process closely and is participating in the law suit with NRDC, Scenic Hudson, and Clearwater, with an amicus brief defending EPA’s authority and the Superfund law.
CAPITAL REGION/HUDSON VALLEY—Following reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and General Electric Co. (GE) may resume the historic Hudson River PCB cleanup as early as next week, leading environmental groups are heralding the start of the final phase and promising vigilance to ensure it is completed successfully. The groups—Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson—stressed that objective science, not corporate interests, must determine how the cleanup is managed and completed.
View the NRD Assessment studies