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Years after PCB dredging, news of ongoing contamination disappoints
Courtesy photo 

Department of Environmental Conservation biologists collect fish for sampling on the Hudson River. After a year of testing fish, the DEC announced just before Christmas that contamination levels in fish were 'essentially the same' as they were before dredging. The contamination is also three times higher than the original goal for 2020.

The latest news about PCB contamination in the Hudson River has dismayed both those who opposed dredging and those who championed it as the way to clean the river.

After a year of testing fish, the Department of Environmental Conservation announced just before Christmas that contamination levels in fish were “essentially the same” as they were before dredging. The contamination is also three times higher than the original goal for 2020.

Residents on both sides of the dredging debate found themselves using the word “failure” as they discussed the results.

“We kind of expected a miracle, and there was no miracle,” said Fort Edward resident Julie Wilson, who lived next to the dredging operations and endured the years of noise and light.

Under an order to the Environmental Protection Agency, General Electric paid to dig up contaminated sediment in the river, remove the water, and haul the remaining material to a toxic waste dump.

But Wilson and several other residents who lived near the operation maintained all along that dredging wouldn’t work, and she said the DEC results proved her right.

“Mankind does not have the technology. He can ruin it easily, but he can’t fix it,” she said.

Courtesy photo 

A DEC research scientist at Hale Creek Field Station tests samples for contaminants, including PCBs.

In a news release announcing the findings, DEC suggested that more dredging could be the right solution. Wilson was not persuaded.

“More of the same? They will never be successful,” she said. “Leave it alone. Let’s see what happens.”

Among those who thought dredging could remove the contamination, the results were also disappointing.

Althea Mullarkey, a public policy analyst with Scenic Hudson, said it was now clear the community would not get the results described in the Record of Decision that ordered General Electric to dredge the river. That decision called for a “rapid reduction” in fish contamination shortly after the dredging, which has not happened.

But Mullarkey noted that in one area of the river, where more dredging was done, fish improved more.

“I never want to say dredging was a failure, because when you dredge according to what the problem is, it works,” she said. “Are we going to meet the goals of the Record of Decision? No.”

Post-Star File Photo  

PCB-laden sediment is scooped out of the Hudson River on Sept. 30, 2015 near Rogers Island in Fort Edward. PCB contamination found in fish remained unchanged according to a report released in late December by the DEC.

She thinks more dredging could accomplish those goals.

“They need to design a project that addresses the problem. But first and foremost you have to acknowledge there is a problem,” she said.

Mullarkey said scientists made mistakes in designing the dredging project.

“We found much more contamination than we originally thought, and much wider spread than we thought,” she said.

The mistake wasn’t so much in theorizing incorrectly as it was in not adjusting the dredging to account for the real-life conditions, she added.

“You didn’t fail. This is what science is. You discovered something new,” Mullarkey said. “They theorized what was in the water when they designed the project. Now they know fish swim in this way, water moves in that way — this is how the contamination moves through the river. They know that now. That’s what science does. Make your adjustments accordingly.”

Instead, the dredging project went on as originally planned.

Mullarkey thinks the solution is to do more dredging now.

But an official spokesman for General Electric said the dredging project was a success.

“The Hudson River dredging project is working and is delivering the environmental benefits that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York state sought and predicted. The data demonstrate this conclusively,” spokesman Mark Behan said.

He noted that PCB contamination levels dropped in the sediment and in the water. In addition, an average of all the larger fish tested shows a contamination decline of 58 percent, he said. However, his figures still showed numbers much higher than the goal: 1.19 ppm of PCB contamination on average, when the goal for next year is for contamination to be at 0.04 ppm for the composite average of large fish.

Behan said the state just needs to give the fish more time to recover.

“Because PCB levels in fish are known to fluctuate, EPA has said in its draft Five-Year Review Report, ‘It is important to recognize that up to 8 or more years of fish tissue data may be necessary to draw statistically based conclusions about trends, with a high degree of confidence,’” Behan said.

He called the early data “encouraging” and said GE would continue to monitor the fish, water and sediment to make sure improvement continues.

Department of Environmental Conservation 

This graph shows the mean total PCB contamination level in large- and small-mouth bass in the Coleville section of the Hudson River, near Stillwater, known as SW3. The PCB levels went up during dredging, went down slightly afterward, and then inched back up, rather than continually reducing as scientists had hoped. PCB levels were reported as much lower in the middle of the graph, but DEC later realized that fish samples had been collected differently than the way they had been collected previously. That error was corrected in later samples.

However, DEC said a close look at each type of large fish showed no such improvement. The agency provided details on each type of fish, in response to a Post-Star request. For bass, a large and popular sport fish, tests in 2004 found 1.51 ppm of PCB contamination. In 2016, after dredging, the same tests found a slight decrease, to 1.23 ppm. But in 2017, that went back up to 1.59 ppm. That data was from what DEC called the most representative area — in Stillwater, the longest pool in the river system.

In several other areas, there was an increase in contamination during dredging and a decrease afterward — but that decrease often leveled off quickly. In each case, DEC said, there was no significant improvement and “not a lot” of ongoing improvement.

Trump aide trying to allay Israeli concerns

TEL AVIV, Israel — The White House has sent national security adviser John Bolton on a mission to allay Israel’s concerns about President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

The pullout announced before Christmas was initially expected to be completed within weeks, but the timetable has slowed as the president acceded to requests from aides, allies and members of Congress for a more orderly drawdown.

Bolton planned to meet with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other officials today before traveling to Turkey. Israeli officials expressed alarm that a swift withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 troops could enable Iran to expand its influence and presence in Syria, wracked by a years-long civil war and the Islamic State militancy.

Trump’s move raised fears about clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who fought alongside American troops against IS extremists. Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

A Trump administration official said Bolton intended to discuss the pace of the drawdown, as well as American troop levels in the region. Bolton was expected to explain that some U.S. troops based in Syria to fight IS will shift to Iraq with the same mission and that some American forces might remain at a key military outpost in al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region.

Bolton also was to convey the message that the United States will be “very supportive” of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the talks.

Bolton warned Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, not to use the U.S. drawdown as a pretext to use chemical weapons against Syrians, saying there is “no change” to the U.S. position that their use is a “red line.” Trump has twice carried out airstrikes in Syria in response to apparent chemical attacks, with the intention of deterring Assad.

“We’ve tried twice through the use of military force to demonstrate to the Assad regime the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable,” Bolton said while en route to Israel. “And if they don’t heed the lessons of those two strikes, the next one will be more telling.”

Trump’s announcement about the intended troop withdrawal was greeted by surprise and condemnation from many U.S. lawmakers and allies, and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the U.S. special envoy for the anti-IS coalition in protest.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is following Bolton to the Mideast this week for an eight-country tour of Arab allies to shore up support for the administration’s partners in the region.

While in Israel, Bolton planned to encourage officials to take a tougher stance against Chinese electronics manufacturers ZTE and Huawei. The U.S. has expressed concerns about potential cyber-penetration by those companies.

Joining Bolton in Turkey will be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. In meetings with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other officials, they are expected to warn against an offensive targeting the Kurdish fighters in Syria.

National parks struggle to stay open, safe during shutdown

Nonprofits, businesses and state governments nationwide are putting up money and volunteer hours in a battle to keep national parks safe and clean for visitors as the partial U.S. government shutdown lingers.

But such makeshift arrangements haven’t prevented some parks from closing and others from being inundated with trash. Support groups say donations of money and time could run short if the budget impasse between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats lasts much longer. Some are calling for parks to close for the duration of the standoff, which Trump said Friday could last “months or even years.”

“Our national parks deserve better than an improvised patchwork of emergency care,” Diane Regas, CEO of the Trust for Public Lands, said in a letter to Trump that noted reports of theft, poaching and accumulating piles of garbage and human waste. “They need robust funding and full-time protection, or they should be closed.”

Ryan Zinke, who recently stepped down under fire as Interior Department secretary, had ordered many national parks to stay open, saying visitors should not be penalized for the political feud over a border wall with Mexico. Zinke said visitors should take action to keep parks clean.

“Grab a trash bag and take some trash out with you,” he said. “In order to keep them open, everybody has to pitch in.”

The park service reached deals with more than 60 partner groups, concessionaires and states to handle trash removal, restroom cleanup and other basic tasks at more than 40 parks — and, in a few cases, to keep park staffers on the job, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said Friday.

The state of New York was footing the bill to operate the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island National Monument, while a private company donated portable toilets at several locations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The National Park Foundation took charge of repairing and operating the National Christmas Tree.

Another nonprofit donated more than $50,000 to keep 15 rangers temporarily on the job at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, volunteers hauled away garbage, cleaned restrooms and restocked them with toilet paper, said John Lauretig, executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree.

“We’ve been dubbed the ‘Toilet Paper Angels,’” he said.

Yosemite National Park in California reported Friday that a man died after falling into a river on Christmas Day, and a spokesman said a statement was not issued more promptly and the investigation is taking longer than usual because of the shutdown.

People living near Yosemite have organized work crews, while businesses in neighboring towns are offering incentives for visitors to remove their rubbish.

The Rush Creek Lodge in Groveland gave a complimentary coffee, cocktail or dessert to all bringing a full trash bag from the park. Spokeswoman Teri Marshall said the lodge was trying to devise a slogan for the promotion.

“’Turning garbage into goodies’ is where I think I might be hanging our hat,” Marshall said.

People visiting Yosemite on Saturday received garbage bags and tips on how best to use the park during the shutdown, courtesy of the Tuolumne County Visitors’ Bureau. One recommendation: “Go before you go,” a reference to the limited number of open bathrooms, executive director Lisa Mayo said.

Grand Canyon National Park is open with help from Arizona, which paid about $64,000 a week to cover restroom cleaning, trash removal and snow plowing. Anyone with permits to hike in the backcountry or raft on the Colorado River could go, but the park wasn’t issuing new permits, spokeswoman Emily Davis said.

A support group for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan was cleaning toilets and grooming a popular trail for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. But snow-covered parking lots weren’t plowed, and the visitors center near Lake Michigan was closed, leaving the volunteer group to consider putting up an information tent.

“A lot of people who go to the park are looking for advice about where to go — what areas are good for snowshoeing and which might be dangerous, and there’s no one here to tell them,” said Kerry Kelly, the group’s chairman. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

Conservation groups warned that volunteers could provide only a minimum level of service. Without full-time, professional staffing, natural resources and cultural artifacts could be damaged and people could be injured, they said.

“The political pressure to keep the parks open needs to come off so managers can evaluate what they’re capable of protecting and whether they can keep visitors safe,” said Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.