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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hudson Dredging

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Hudson River flows from the Adirondack Mountains for 300 miles to New York Harbor. Its magnificent scenery and rich history have inspired legends like Rip Van Winkle and The Last of the Mohicans, as well as an entire school of painting. The river is also rich in chemicals. Chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls. Decades ago the General Electric Company's manufacturing plants in the upper Hudson released massive amounts of PCBs. They still contaminate the river. The federal plan to clean up the Hudson has inspired one of the most contentious and costliest environmental debates in history. But it may be nearing an end. The public comment period on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to dredge PCBs from the river has just concluded. The agency is expected to decide this summer on a final course of action. We sent North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann to find out why opposition to dredging runs so strong in the upper Hudson Valley.

(Footfalls, bird song)

MANN: On a bright April afternoon, Andy Mele picks his way along a muddy path that follows the upper Hudson.

MELE: We're in a river valley, fairly flat, low rolling hills. It's very early spring, and there's still some snow on the ground. The ground's muddy from snow runoff. We're looking out at the Thompson Island Pool.

(Flowing water)

MANN: The day is gorgeous. On the far shore, wood ducks move in a line under budding trees. Nearby a trickle of snowmelt forms a waterfall. Then, Mele points to where the brown, silty water mingles with chunks of ice.

MELE: Sitting literally at our feet is probably 150,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls. We're looking at ground zero of America's largest Superfund site.

MANN: Thompson Island Pool lies at the head of the 200-mile stretch of contaminated water, one of the legacies of America's postwar industrial boom. In the late 40s, polychlorinated biphenyls were considered an essential chemical, used to make a wide range of electrical equipment. For three decades, General Electric's factories here poured untreated PCBs directly into the Hudson. More than a million pounds of the chemical washed downstream, reaching as far as New York Harbor. Most scientists now think PCBs cause cancer, and the substance was banned in 1977. In the years since, environmental groups like Andy Mele's Sloop Clearwater have called for GE to remove the PCBs. The corporation has resisted that idea, lobbying for decades to block a series of clean-up plans. Then, five months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that leaving PCBs in the river is a hazard to the environment and to people's health. Richard Caspe, head of the EPA's Superfund program, made the announcement at a public hearing in Saratoga Springs.

CASPE: We know that PCB is a serious health threat. We know that over one million pounds of PCBs were discharged into the Hudson River. We know that there's unacceptable fish contamination. We know that people are eating the fish despite the "eat none" advisories. We know that birds and animals obviously are eating the fish as well. So after a ten-year study, where are we?

MANN: The solution, Caspe says, is a massive dredging operation designed to suck PCB-laden sediments from the river bottom. In one of the biggest environmental clean-ups in U.S. history, a fleet of dredging barges would fan out over 40 miles of the upper Hudson. For five years the dredges would work round the clock. They'd haul out nearly three million cubic yards of contaminated mud. General Electric would be forced to pay for the cleanup, with a price tag of nearly half a billion dollars. GE has responded with an aggressive PR campaign designed to convince the public that dredging would slow the river's natural recovery. Television ads like this one show the Hudson as a pristine river, busy with families swimming and boating.

(Commercial music, splashing, children shouting)

VOICE-OVER: These wonderful moments on one of the richest rivers on Earth could be interrupted for the next 20 years if the EPA orders the Hudson dredged.

(Sounds of heavy machinery)

MANN: The company's ads and infomercials have aired in heavy rotation on dozens of Hudson Valley TV and radio stations. GE even plastered its anti-dredging message on billboards and buses. Pro-environment groups say the campaign may have cost as much as $60 million. GE officials put the figure between $10 and $15 million. At a recent shareholder meeting, GE's management fought a proposal that would have forced the company to open its books, showing exactly how much it spent on legal fees, advertising, and lobbying efforts to block the clean-up. Spokesman Steve Ramsay.

RAMSAY: Company doesn't talk about how much it spends in terms of public information or advertising in any area.

MANN: Could you say why? What's the company's motive for that?

RAMSAY: Well, I mean, that's information that we just generally don't share with the public. We don't think that that's the issue. The issue here should be, what's the right remedy for the Hudson River?

MANN: To help make its case, General Electric's ads have featured local residents, like Judy Dean, who runs the Schuyler Yacht Basin.

DEAN: As you can see, this is not only our business, this is our home. We live here, we have invested everything. Our entire lives are here.


MANN: Schuylerville is a small town that sits in the middle of the Hudson's most polluted stretch. There are PCB hot spots to the north and south. But Dean says she doesn't worry about her health. Walking along the snowy river bank, she points to the dock where her customers tie up their boats.

DEAN: The risk to the average person living here, working here, traveling through here, is nil. If you don't eat the fish and if you don't eat tons of fish, you will not become contaminated at all, period.

MANN: Dean is vice president of CEASE, a group that opposes dredging the Hudson. The organization has support from General Electric. But like a lot of people here, Dean says she's ambivalent about the company. She says she agreed to appear in GE's ads only to get her own message to the public.

DEAN: This has nothing to do with General Electric. I really have no interest in General Electric at all, except that yes, I happen to agree that dredging is not the way to lower the levels of PCBs in fish.

MANN: GE's campaign has been effective. Many residents think dredging will actually stir up the PCBs, making the river less safe. After decades of recession, the upper Hudson's economy has seen a revival driven by tourism and a boom in vacation homes. People here say the huge cleanup operation will drive visitors away. There are lawn signs everywhere calling for the federal government to leave the Hudson alone. More than 50 communities have passed resolutions opposing the EPA plan. Ernest Martin is mayor of Stillwater, where General Electric is a major employer.

MARTIN: I am definitely against dredging in the Hudson River.

(Applause and cheers)

MARTIN: It would take too many years to clean it under the dredging proposal by EPA. Our future for tourism, employment, new business, will be lost forever. You want to do what's right? Don't dredge the Hudson. You don't like our valley? Then stay in Washington, D.C.


MANN: At times the public hearings turned into shouting matches like this one, with EPA officials and locals trading accusations.


CASPE: I'm sorry you felt it necessary to use that rhetoric, to believe that we have a vested -- (Shouting in the background) Well, does the truth hurt?

MAN: You've got a good teacher.

CASPE: Well, I'm sorry that you believe that's the best your government can give you.

MAN: It is! It is!

MANN: This hearing in Queensbury was cut short when a bomb scare forced a thousand people to clear the auditorium. Andrea Rychlenski is a public affairs specialist with the EPA, who has worked on the Hudson River project for ten years. She says the level of bitterness is a surprise.

RYCYLENSKI: Generally it's a matter of what we have proposed is not clean enough. People want it even cleaner. They want guarantees of safety and guarantees for their health. This is quite unique, in that we have a portion, a considerable portion of the Hudson Valley that does not want a contaminant taken out of their midst.

MANN: Rychlenski says public opposition to the clean-up formed in the 1980s when New York State proposed building toxic waste dumps for the PCBs here in the Hudson Valley. The EPA's plan now calls for the sludge to be shipped to dumps as far away as Texas, but the ill will remains.

RYCHLENSKI: There is a fundamental distrust, and I think this has certainly been taken advantage of by General Electric with the ad campaign. It plays on all those historic fears. If you've been with this as long as I have, you see it very, very plainly.

MANN: The EPA and environmental groups say GE's anti-dredging campaign is inaccurate and manipulative. But some scientists also worry that the ads cause people to ignore health advisories. Studies show that many folks still eat fish taken from the Hudson. They ignore warnings that contaminated fish could cause cancer. PCBs might also damage the thymus gland, leading to immune deficiencies. And researchers also suspect the chemical of causing birth defects. Dr. David Carpenter is a professor of toxicology at the University of Albany. He studied the effects of PCBs for the last 15 years.

CARPENTER: In my judgment there is definitely a risk to humans from the PCBs that are in the river. A lot of the distrust has been fed by the General Electric attempts, and blatant attempts, to influence the outcome by casting doubt on the objectivity, the credibility, of EPA. But on the basis of everything we know about human populations exposed to PCBs elsewhere, we have reason to suspect that there are health effects in those people as well.

MANN: A report issued last month by the National Academy of Sciences echoed Carpenter's concerns. The study found that PCBs are statistically associated with liver and thyroid disease. Also, behavioral and developmental deficits in children. General Electric, meanwhile, has funded its own research, which found no definitive link between PCBs and human disease. Spokesman Steve Ramsay calls those who argue otherwise irresponsible.

RAMSAY: The studies that have looked at electrical workers and the people who are the most highly-exposed to PCBs have simply shown that despite the fact that PCBs do cause tumors in laboratory animals at very high doses, those same results are not seen in human beings.

MANN: General Electric claims that the Hudson River is restoring itself. For a decade the company argued that PCBs would biodegrade, breaking down into less-toxic compounds. That hasn't happened. GE now argues that the toxins are being captured, buried safely under layers of river sediment. This company ad shows a parade of geese and white-tailed deer with the shining river as a backdrop.

(Commercial music)

VOICE-OVER: The Hudson. It's made a remarkable comeback. Wildlife is thriving. The river continues to clean itself....

MANN: GE concedes that PCBs in fish are still well above the EPA's permissible level. But the company says the problem isn't contaminated sediment. In a twist, GE now claims that a residue of PCB sludge is still leaking into the river from the company's factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. Spokesman Steve Ramsay says a cleanup at those sites is underway.

RAMSAY: Source control will achieve all of the same reductions in fish of PCBs that the dredging program will. That's a given. We know that they will achieve equivalent results. And then you take a look at the negative impacts of dredging and you begin to say, "What's the balance here? Why are we doing something that's going to essentially destroy the river in an attempt to save it?"

(Flowing water)

MANN: The EPA doesn't agree that source control is the answer. Flooding and frequent ice jams stir sediments in the Hudson each spring, bringing PCBs to the surface. A study released this month by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation found that chemicals dumped decades ago are actually moving beyond the river. PCBs are leaching into soil here along the Hudson's bank. Contamination in people's yards and nearby fields is now six times above EPA's recommended level. Ann Secord is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

SECORD: I've spent a lot of time on the Hudson River, and I really love the Hudson River. Physically it appears to be a very normal, healthy ecosystem. But I know that this is a very contaminated ecosystem.

MANN: Secord studies tree swallows on the upper Hudson, where the birds feed on contaminated insects that hatch from the river. The PCB concentrations found in the swallows here are the highest she's ever seen in the species. For the most part, Secord says, the effects are subtle. Some tree swallows start building their nests wrong, or they abandon them altogether. Secord thinks that could be the result of altered hormone levels, a PCB side effect shown in lab studies. In rare cases, the tree swallows Secord examined were actually deformed.

SECORD: We did find one nestling with a cross-bill. We found two nestlings with deformed legs. And we found one with a small eye. We also did know a few tree swallow nestlings that had swollen abdomens, which may have been an indication of edema.

MANN: Biologists are also seeing high levels of PCBs in turtles, mink, and otter, which eat contaminated fish. Studies like these have made headlines in the bigger cities down-river, where the cleanup plan has more support. But in the small towns along the upper Hudson where the dredging would take place, many people reject or simply ignore the government's findings.


MANN: Here in Hudson Falls people say the river looks clean. Floating garbage and raw sewage, common sights a generation ago, are gone. River otters and blue herons have returned. The PCBs that remain near GE's waterfront factory are invisible, so tiny that they're measured in parts per million. The health study funded by New York State is trying to determine whether the chemical is making residents sick. But John Mattison, a GE worker who handled PCB-laden oils for 35 years, says the research is a waste of time.

MATTISON: I personally feel a lot of people like to talk. They don't understand what they're talking about.

MANN: What would it take to convince you that there was a health risk here?

MATTISON: Nobody's going to convince me, because I know better. I know it's a pack of lies. You've got to realize that this is a beautiful river. The wildlife just came back. It would be a horrible thing to destroy this river now.

MANN: Andy Mele, head of Sloop Clearwater, agrees that the Hudson is cleaner. He credits federal programs like the Clean Water Act that stopped the dumping of untreated waste. Restoring the Hudson has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Mele says it's time for General Electric to pay its share.

MELE: GE's media strategy has been to get you to distrust government, to distrust science. They've turned this whole area into the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I think every polluter is out there watching General Electric on this one, going to school on it.

MANN: If the EPA doesn't order dredging, Mele says the decision will set a precedent for other clean-up sites around the country. The stakes are high for GE as well. If the company loses this fight, it could also be forced to remove its PCBs from dozens of onshore landfills that neighbor the Hudson. The cost of that cleanup could run into the billions of dollars. The Environmental Protection Agency will announce its final ruling in mid-August. For Living on Earth, I'm Brian Mann in Hudson Falls, New York.

(Music up and under: Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, "Brother's Keeper")



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