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Hudson River PCB dredging nears new crossroads

Dec 08, 2010 11:42 am
ALBANY -- The prolific and spot-on Brian Nearing of the Times Union reports today that state and environmental groups are warning the federal Environmental Protection Agency against releasing a plan they claim could allow more PCBs to remain behind in the Hudson River. Both the Department of Environmental Conservation and a coalition of environmental groups wrote the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week, warning against a potential plan that could allow more PCBs to be capped over and left on the river bottom. But a spokesman for General Electric Co., which is running and paying for the massive Superfund cleanup, said both the state and the river advocates are wrong and misunderstand the plan that EPA is expected to release on Monday.

GE plants in Fort Edward and neighboring Hudson Falls discharged PCBs into the river for decades before the lubricant and coolant was banned by EPA in 1977. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are considered probable carcinogens. The last decade was filled with heated battles, regionally as well as in Washington, as to how to treat the cancerous pollution in the state's main river.

The current EPA Regional Director for the region is Judith Enck, formerly in charge of environmental matters for the governor in Albany.

"GE is not advocating capping as a substitute for dredging," said spokesman Mark Behan on Tuesday. He said EPA is poised to release a plan to remove 97 percent of PCBs in the project's second phase, which will start this spring. He said there would be less capping in this plan than there was in the project's first year in 2009.

However, four environmental groups that claimed to EPA that the plan could leave behind more PCBs than originally envisioned under EPA's 2002 cleanup agreement. The Dec. 1 letter was signed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and Scenic Hudson, all of which sent representatives Tuesday to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C, in a eleventh-hour bid to change the plan.

"EPA is perhaps heading in the wrong direction," said Althea Mullarkey, a policy analyst with Scenic Hudson and a member of EPA's Community Advisory Board, which has been following the cleanup project.

She said the plan would allow for fewer dredge passes through PCB contamination, and the increased capping off of PCBs that were missed. Leaving capped PCBs on the river bottom would be like sweeping dirt under a rug, she said, because the rocky caps would have to be effective indefinitely in a river that has powerful currents, often exacerbated by rain or snow melt.

Those same concerns were raised in a Dec. 2 letter to EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Sussman by Deputy DEC Commissioner Stuart Gruskin, who warned federal officials "will be heading in the wrong direction" by allowing GE to leave behind PCBs that otherwise could be dredged out.

"We do not believe that GE's desire to save money is an appropriate basis" to leave behind PCBs, the letter stated. DEC spokesman Yancey Roy declined further comment Tuesday, saying Gruskin's letter spoke for itself.

EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears confirmed that the letters had been received, and said the agency had reached no final decisions on its plan, including capping. Once EPA issues its plan, GE will have 30 days to decide whether to will continue the project. EPA has vowed to continue the work if GE leaves.

GE plants in Fort Edward and neighboring Hudson Falls discharged PCBs into the river for decades before the lubricant and coolant was banned by EPA in 1977. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are considered probable carcinogens.

Behan also said a September 2010 report by a panel of experts on the first year of dredging recommended more capping could be used to prevent the escape of PCBs into the water and keep the project on schedule.

That report found that "more efficient and extensive use of capping would improve productivity and reduce resuspension," adding that additional capping done in the first years set a precedent for more capping in future years.

Mullarkey said GE was taking that part of the report out of context because it applied only to specific dredging situations where PCBs in fine-grained river sediments were in hard-to-reach areas like rock bottoms. She also pointed to part of the panel report that found capping used to isolate PCBs that could have been dredged "should be avoided" in the project's second phase.

The expert panel found that problems in the first year of dredging, including unacceptable PCB levels in the river around the dredging, were caused in part because GE and EPA did not have accurate maps of how deeply PCBs were buried, and some hot spots turned out to be much deeper than expected.

"Everything is about getting better measurements of the PCB contamination" Mullarkey said.
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