Beginning at Lake Tear of the Clouds, the Hudson River flows 315 miles through New York State. It had once been a source of recreation, farming, and food, but in the middle of the 20th century, rapid pollution caused Americans to hold a different view: never use the Hudson. On Thursday, June 4, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman hosted a discussion with three environmental panelists to address how the river could be cleaned and made safe once again. Held at the SVA Theater in Chelsea, the two primary issues discussed were the shipping of crude oil and the toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) present in the river’s sediment.
The panelists agreed that the Hudson River is currently a dangerous waterway. “PCBs are everywhere,” said panelist Daniel Raichel, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defence Council. From the 1940s to the 1970s, General Electric Co. dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River from two facilities upstate. These chemicals — fantastic for industrial applications such as electrical insulation, yet potentially fatal to humans — have sifted into the sediment of nearly the entire river, the upper Hudson being the most contaminated. Raichel noted that even “fractions of a gram” of PCBs could cause severe health problems such as neurological disorders, cancer, or severe skin lesions, to name a few on the list.
In addition to PCBs, oil spills and fires are a distinct possibility not only on the Hudson River, but also on the trains transporting oil to it. Crude oil is taken from various sites such as the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana and transported by train to Albany, which then either stays on a train or is loaded onto a barge to travel down the Hudson River to refineries in New Jersey, Philadelphia, or New Brunswick, Canada. According to panelist Hayley Carlock, environmental attorney for Scenic Hudson, these trains and barges are both ill-suited for the task.
The trains primarily use DOT-111 tank cars, which were never meant to carry the highly volatile Bakken crude. Carlock warned that they have insufficient lining, external shields, and vents to prevent gas buildups, qualities that caused rail workers to nickname them “bomb trains”. Recent history bears this out: three separate explosions occurred in 2013, one of which killed 47 people and burned down 30 buildings in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. About 25 to 30 of these trains run along the Hudson River per week, each train potentially carrying up to 1 million gallons of crude.
If not on trains, the crude is put on barges and shipped down the Hudson River. These barges, Carlock noted, are also unsafe. The oil tanker Stena Primorsk ran aground on its maiden voyage in 2012, slicing a 13 foot gash in its outer hull with 12 million gallons of crude inside; a second inner hull protected against a spill.
All three panelists agreed that cleaning up and protecting the Hudson River is a huge task. The PCB cleanup is General Electric’s responsibility due to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), however it is GE’s final year of mandated cleanup, and the panelists expressed concern that GE will weasel its way out of responsibility. Oil, Carlock explained, is more about prevention. If a spill occurs, the best case scenario would be a recovery of only 5 percent to 25 percent of crude, the rest running downstream or sifting into the sediment.
“If there was a spill,” Senator Hoylman asked, “[does the state] have sufficient bonding for a cleanup?” Panelist Paul Gallay, president of the Hudson River advocacy group Riverkeeper, responded by saying “I can’t sugarcoat it: no, a thousand times no.”
How can these problems be solved? Gallay urged that activism is the best way to make progress. “What people pay attention to, what people get involved with, what people get active over, politicians take notice.”
In the theater, Gallay asked if anyone had participated in a peaceful protest before. About 70 of the 100 people present raised their hands.