state, feds bicker about hudson's health

| 27 Dec 2016 | 04:22

How healthy is the Hudson River?

Just over a year after General Electric completed a mandated cleanup of a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River, state and federal officials are at odds about how much more testing, if any, is needed to ensure the waterway is returning to health, decades after the company dumped more than 1 million pounds of toxins into the waterway.

State authorities want federal administrators to expand an evaluation of the Hudson River, particularly into the portion of the waterway that courses through New York City. Ahead of a 5-year review of the river’s health due early in 2017, the federal Environmental Protection Agency says sampling data is sufficient.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation last week said that data shows that PCBs unloaded hundreds of miles upstream at two GE plants had materialized in the Lower Hudson.

In a strongly worded letter sent to the EPA’s regional administrator earlier this month, the DEC’s commissioner, Basil Seggos, said GE’s six-year remediation project was insufficient. He called on the EPA to defer any conclusion that the cleanup is protective of human health and the environment.

“Before a protectiveness determination can be achieved, EPA must require General Electric (GE) to conduct additional expedited investigations, sampling, and any necessary remedial work,” Seggos wrote to the administrator, Judith Enck.

Seggos was especially critical of what he said was the EPA’s disregard of the Lower Hudson River, which he said the review does not consider — despite, he wrote, EPA risk assessors’ acknowledgement that there are “unacceptable and uncontrolled risks” to people and other organisms attributable to GE’s dumping.

Seggos said “EPA has largely ignored PCB contamination of the Lower Hudson River.”

In an equally blunt response, Enck wrote back that the agency “strongly disagreed” with Seggos’ contention that the EPA had failed to use scientific rigor to support its decisions regarding the Hudson.

She said Seggos’ “baseless accusation” disregarded the EPA’s reasoning, detailed in a Dec. 16 letter, as to why the agency would not try to compel GE to sample hundreds more locations for PCBs, as the DEC requested.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are linked to adverse health effects including cancer in humans.

Among the reasons cited by the federal agency are that the 375 sampling stations in both dredged and non-dredged areas are “statistically appropriate” and sufficient. All of those stations are in the Upper Hudson and sampled by GE.

Enck cited other reasons for not increasing the sample size, including the time the agency would need to reach agreement with GE to perform the work, which she said “would be far more extensive” than that agreed to in a 2005 consent decree that preceded the remediation’s start. An ongoing fish monitoring program, also in the Upper Hudson, also gives a nuanced view of the waterway’s health, Enck wrote. But, she wrote, if results from either the sediment sampling or the fish monitoring program call for greater sampling, EPA would consider an increase.

Although Enck said the upcoming 5-year review would address the health of the Lower Hudson, she also noted “ongoing” PCB releases from contaminated sites in the Lower Hudson that are the DEC’s responsibility. She said the DEC was free to pursue its own sampling program, as the DEC has said it would if the EPA did not.

General Electric concluded a mandated cleanup of a 40-mile stretch of the waterway between Fort Edward and Troy in 2015 at a cost of about $1.5 billion.

GE says it is monitoring the river’s shoreline and assessing whether high levels of toxins are present there.

Just before its dredging operations concluded last year, the company said it had addressed “100 percent” of the PCBs targeted by the federal agency. “EPA has called the project a success and a national model, and we’re very proud of that,” a company representative wrote in response to state elected officials’ call for “full remediation” of the river.

In a statement accompanying its report, the DEC suggests that the EPA “expand the investigation of remedial efficacy” from the Federal Dam at Troy, the southernmost portion of the remediation project, to the Battery in New York City.

Seggos’ letter accompanied a DEC report generated as part of the department’s participation in a mandated 5-year review evaluating cleanup of the river by General Electric, which dumped PCBs into the Hudson from its manufacturing plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls during a 30-period ending in the late 1970s.

The EPA’s stance on the cleanup has been criticized as hastened and obstinate by others, including by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those critics say collected data shows that a higher concentration of PCBs has remained following the cleanup than was envisioned when the remediation project was put in place.

“What’s happened is the science has evolved,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who has long advocated for more cleanup of the river. “We now can detect the PCB levels more accurately, which suggests that the agreement needs to be revisited.”

He said it was crucial for the EPA to demand GE make additional assessments before the company is absolved of further responsibility.

“You can’t just back away from a trillion dollar environmental disaster and proclaim ‘mission accomplished’ when the science points in another direction,” said Hoylman, the ranking Democrat on the state Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee. “The EPA can step in and conduct more testing and most efficiently make a determination as to what more GE should be doing.”

The state will otherwise have to perform the work and then sue GE for reimbursement, he said.

Abby Jones, a staff attorney with the Hudson Riverkeeper, said that “the basic assumption” of the river’s health following remediation was incorrect. She suggested that the federal agency appeared eager to move on from one of the nation’s greatest environmental calamities.

“EPA, for whatever reason, is gung ho on declaring the remedy a success,” Jones last week.

The federal agency, she said, is refusing to accept that there are more toxins in the Hudson than anticipated when it drew up the remediation order.

“We know that there’s more contamination in the river and that the contamination is going to last longer,” she said. “There’s still more that needs to be done.”

The EPA says that 2.75 million cubic yards of river mud had been dredged, and 310,000 pounds of PCBs removed, twice what was expected. According to the EPA, the company dumped 1.3 million pounds of the toxic compound into the river from its upstate plants.

Although about 200 miles of the Hudson, from Hudson Falls to the Battery, was declared a federal Superfund site in 1984, a decision to dredge did not arrive until 2002 and General Electric’s did not begin remediation until 2009.

Richard Khavkine: