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 Getting the Toxics Out of the Hudson:

Bringing Good Things Back to Life

             From 1946 to 1977 the Hudson River, long fabled for its beauty, became the sewer for more than a million pounds of toxic chemicals.  Polychlorinated biphenyls � PCBs, classified by the U.S. EPA as a probable human carcinogen � were manufactured by the General Electric Company at plants located in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, some 200 miles north of the Hudson�s mouth in New York City.   

            Both plants poured PCB wastes directly into the river.  When a nearby dam was removed in 1973, mud laden with PCBs surged down the river.  Most settled in the next lower reaches of the river, behind three other dams, but some of the chemicals have made their way downstream all the way to New York Harbor.   

            PCBs are taken up by plankton � tiny plants and animals � and �bioaccumulate� all the way up the food chain into fish, birds (including bald eagles) and mammals like otter, mink and humans.  Because of PCBs, the Hudson was largely closed to fishing for human consumption, including the commercially valuable striped bass fishery, a quarter century ago.  (However,   many anglers eat the fish they catch despite these restrictions.) 

            Now the damage will be repaired.   On February 1, 2002 EPA announced its final decision to dredge the toxic sediments out of the river.   

            As the source of the pollution, GE � one of the world�s largest corporations � is legally responsible for the costs of cleanup.  And those costs are likely to be large indeed.  EPA�s decision, supported by the State of New York and a wide range of environmental and conservation groups, calls for targeted dredging to clean the most heavily polluted areas in a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson north of Albany, at an estimated cost of $460 million.  About 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated mud will be taken out of the river.  Excess water will be removed and treated, and the mud will then be shipped by rail to licensed disposal facilities hundreds of miles away.   

            After three years of design work, the dredging itself will take another six years.  The project will result in the removal of some 150,000 pounds of PCBs from the river � about 65% of the PCBs still left in the 40-mile stretch.  Of course, the dredging won�t be able to get all the PCBs.  Enough will be left behind so that some parts of the river will still be unsuitable for non-restricted human consumption of fish for years to come.  But after dredging all the fish will be much less contaminated, and much safer for people and other animals. 

            GE argued that natural processes are causing older, contaminated sediments to be buried by cleaner sediments, eventually taking the PCBs out of circulation.  But EPA gathered strong evidence that widespread, permanent burial of contaminated sediments is not happening: in fact, PCBs are often brought back to the surface and redistributed.  GE also claimed that the dredging work itself will recontaminate the river, but experience at other sites with high-tech, modern equipment shows that the work can be done safely and cleanly.

             The decision to dredge the Hudson will have implications far beyond the banks of this historic river.  Aquatic sediments throughout America, and indeed the world, are similarly contaminated with PCBs, dioxin, organic chemicals and toxic heavy metals. 

 (For more information, visit EPA�s Hudson River web site at http://www.epa.gov/hudson)

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Last modified: 02/08/15  

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