Towns Fight U.S. Plan to Clean Up Hudson River

Jennifer Mapes
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2001

When the conservation group American Rivers recently issued a list of what it said were the "most endangered" rivers in America, the Hudson River was fourth on the list. The designation was made, according to the group, because much of the river is contaminated by PCBs—a group of chemicals known to cause cancer in laboratory animals and suspected of causing a host of ailments in humans.

A cleanup plan, however, has drawn battle lines between those who want to see the PCBs removed and those who believe the river should be left alone.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in December a proposed plan to dredge a large span of the Hudson to remove the PCBs. The oily, solid particulates have been buried in the sediment at the bottom since being discharged into the river 25 years ago by General Electric (GE) factories in upstate New York.

Former EPA administrator Carol Browner called the U.S. $460 million cleanup plan "one of the most aggressive environmental efforts ever proposed." Under federal law, GE would be responsible for the costs of the dredging project.

"Without cleanup, the PCBs at the bottom of the Hudson River will pose a risk to the environment and public health for the foreseeable future," said Rebecca Wodder, the president of American Rivers. "It's time for General Electric to step up to the plate and act like a responsible corporate citizen."

But GE opposes the plan as unnecessary. Residents of many communities along the river agree, saying the effort could even do more harm than good.

"There's no benefit to be gained by anyone, including the river," by dredging, said Merrilyn Pulver, town supervisor of Fort Edward, home to one of the GE factories that discharged the PCBs.

Health Risks Cited

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used widely as an insulator and coolant in the manufacture of electrical equipment. For 30 years, more than a million pounds of toxic PCBs were dumped into the Hudson River.

The EPA banned the use of PCBs in 1979 after classifying them as a probable human carcinogen. Today, PCBs are listed along with DDT as one of a "dirty dozen" chemicals blacklisted in the United States.

According to the EPA, most of the discharged PCBs remain in the riverbed sediment along a 200-mile (300-kilometer) stretch of the Hudson River from Hudson Falls, New York, to the Battery in New York City. Under the EPA plan, set to be finalized this summer, contaminated sediment would be removed over five years from EPA-designated PCB "hot spots" along the Hudson. The targeted sites were selected on the basis of possible risk to people, fish, and other wildlife of various ecosystems along the river.

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