GLENS FALLS -- Environmentalists believe General Electric Co.'s proposed changes to the Hudson River dredging project could, if enacted, be a detriment to the cleanup.
At a meeting Tuesday morning in the Queensbury Hotel, the company proposed changes that GE officials believe would reduce the flow of polychlorinated biphenyls into the lower Hudson River and cut the level of PCBs in fish.
GE consultant John Connolly told a committee of scientists and engineers reviewing the first year of the project that the amount of PCBs traveling down the river is higher than the Environmental Protection Agency estimated.
He also said that the government's target of allowing no more than 2,640 pounds of PCBs to float into the lower part of the river wasn't good enough.
"It means nothing," Connolly said. "It means do your best but keep going. We think that is environmentally irresponsible."
Connolly proposed dredging only in "high-value" areas. In other places, the cleanup should test for PCB contamination rather than simply dredging. The project shouldn't "over-dredge" as in phase one, he said.
If the recommendations aren't included in the second part of the cleanup, set to begin in 2011, the amount of PCBs traveling downriver could ultimately negate any initial success in dredging the river, he said,
"The point here is what we're seeing going into the lower Hudson is bigger than we thought and it may continue to rise," Connolly said.
Manna Jo Greene, the environmental director for Hudson River Clearwater, said the company's proposals could ultimately harm the river.
"The environmental groups want to see as much PCBs out of the river and minimize the amount (of PCBs) traveling downriver by using good, sound techniques," Greene said.
She said General Electric appears to be willing to let more contaminated sediment stay in the river.
"They've come up with new approaches to try to convince the peer review panel and the public that the standards should be relaxed," she said.
Federal officials also pushed back against the GE proposals. The EPA told the panel that the amount of PCBs traveling downstream would eventually return to normal levels.
"There are two sides to the data and I don't know what's right," said Ben Conetta, the agency's project manager. "We have to figure that out."
The long-delayed cleanup started in May 2009 and is expected to be finished by 2015, although federal officials said Tuesday the project could take longer in order to be effective. It is on hiatus in 2010 while the project's effectiveness is reviewed.
The project's first year concentrated on the upper part of the river near Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, where GE discharged PCBs from its two plants.
Concerns over high amounts of PCBs being dislodged by the project were raised in March when a large spike was recorded near Thompson Island.
Halfmoon and Waterford, two communities that draw drinking water from the river, had been previously placed on alternate water supplies from Troy.
Officials at the EPA believe the 2,470 parts per trillion recorded in March - more than four times the federal safety standard - may have been incorrect.
At the meeting on Tuesday, the federal officials argued against the practice of suspending dredging when the amount of PCBs in the river reached 500 parts per trillion, the federal safety standard. Last summer, the project was halted multiple times when the PCB level topped the threshold.
David King, the agency's Hudson River field office director, said the EPA will attempt to target the problem rather than shutting down work on the river and causing delays.
"We'll still reserve the option to stop," King said.
In a phone interview, Halfmoon Supervisor Mindy Wormuth said any change to the project needs to be scrutinized.
"Anything they do with the dredging project we'll watch very seriously and with a critical eye," she said. "We'll want to monitor that and any plans they have that could have a long-term impact on the river as a drinking source."
Waterford Supervisor Jack Lawler said he was pleased that the EPA had agreed to pay for both towns' drinking water through 2012.
"This really validates our position five years ago that the river is not a safe drinking source," he said.