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Official: GE incorrectly sampled PCB-laden fish for a decade

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SCHUYLERVILLE uGeneral Electric Co. has been studying Hudson River fish wrong for a decade, leading to reports that PCB levels were much lower than they actually are, the EPA reported Wednesday.

Fish are harvested every year from the PCB-contaminated area of the Hudson River to track pollution levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency made its report at the Community Advisory Group meeting Wednesday in Schuylerville. CAG members were astonished and questioned how such a mistake could go on for so long.

In essence, General Electric sampled the fish incorrectly, in a way that created wide variations in the amount of tissue tested per fish. That can lead to wide variations in PCB levels.

The state Attorney General’s Office is investigating.

“The GE method was 75 percent lower (in PCBs) than the DEC method,” said John Davis, an environmental scientist with the Attorney General’s Office. “We are concerned by this. ... We’re evaluating what kind of decisions were made based on that data and what decisions will be made going forward.”

Mark Behan, whose firm has been hired to speak for GE on dredging matters, said the EPA approved GE’s method of filleting fish.

EPA official Gary Klawinski briefly explained the issue and took the brunt of the group’s reaction.

He defended the mistake.

“The data’s not wrong,” he said, explaining that the EPA often cuts fish without the rib bone in many other states. However, DEC cuts fish with the rib bone intact. DEC tested the fish in the PCB zone before 2004, leading to problems comparing current reported levels to the levels before dredging.

Klawinski suggested there was not much difference between the cuts and that it was an innocent mistake.

Davis begged to differ.

Cutting the fish with the rib in, essentially leaving the entire fish side for study, minimizes differences between different people filleting fish, Davis said. If the rib is cut out, the amount of tissue left to study varies dramatically from cutter to cutter.

As for how the mistake was made, Davis said General Electric was told how to cut the fish.

“It’s in all the work plans, everything,” he said.

The amount of PCBs in the fish doesn’t really matter yet, Klawinski said. The state still has a fish advisory recommending people not eat fish in the area, he said.

CAG members weren’t impressed by that. They said many people have started eating the fish despite the advisory, and questioned whether fish are truly safe in the lower Hudson, where fish eating isn’t banned.

“We have a lot of people eating fish in the lower Hudson communities,” said CAG member Althea Mullarkey.

They were also dismayed to learn that General Electric is planning to start taking apart its dewatering facility next month — before dredging is done and before the decommissioning plan is approved.

Klawinski called the facility removal “demobilization,” saying it can be done before decommissioning.

CAG members objected, saying they may want more dredging done.

“We’ve all been working really hard and hoping, probably against hope ... that we would see more dredging done,” said CAG member Julia Stokes. “I feel pretty blindsided.”

By the time a decommissioning plan is approved, “pretty much everything is going to already be gone,” Mullarkey said.

General Electric plans to finish dredging by mid-October, with the last location being near Quack Island. Bald eagles nest there, so GE had to wait until the hatchlings fledged. That happened recently, so GE began setting up operations.

The company plans to dredge 35,000 cubic yards from the shallow area.

You can reach Kathleen Moore at 742-3247 or kmoore@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByKathleenMoore or at her blog on www.poststar.com.

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