SARATOGA — Results are not yet in for PCB levels in the Old Champlain Canal, but the EPA is expecting good news.
“We are expecting results to be low. Because everything else we have for that section is all low or non-detect,” EPA local field office Director Gary Klawinski said at Wednesday’s Community Action Group meeting in the town of Saratoga.
Results will be back within a few weeks, before the end of the year.
While water from the Hudson River has flowed into the canal, the gates on the canal may have protected it from contamination.
“You’d have to get sediment transported by the water to get any significant contamination,” Klawinski said. “There’s gates. There’s a couple structures that would block that stuff.”
The samples were mostly frozen on the theory that they would not be needed.
When workers found the bottom of the canal — which was not easy — they took a 3-foot-long sample of the sediment. That was divided in half, with one side being immediately tested by a lab. The other half was broken into three 1-foot lengths, so that if PCBs are found, the samples could show where the contamination is located.
But the 1-foot segments were frozen and held at a lab. The other section underwent immediate testing, which takes six to eight weeks.
Once the results are back, EPA officials said they would immediately meet with town of Saratoga and village of Schuylerville officials. The town and village boards pushed for the tests because they want to dredge the canal as part of economic development efforts. If the canal debris does not need to be removed as contaminated waste, it will be much cheaper and quicker.
But contamination was found in the “bowl” area of Fort Hardy Park, which is near the canal. That came from mud that was washed ashore in floods.
Years ago, General Electric Co. capped the bowl to keep the contaminated dirt away from children who play there. That cap is checked yearly and repaired when necessary.
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“If mud gets in the bowl (now), we sample the mud,” he said. “The mud has been low. Every so often we see 1 or 2 parts per million.”
Usually, the mud has no detectible amount of PCBs, he said.
Also at Wednesday’s CAG meeting, EPA officials released the latest fish samples.
“Pre-dredge, we were all the way up in the 2 parts per million (PCB contamination). We’re at 0.8 as of 2018,” said EPA remedial project manager Michael Cheplowitz.
“That’s encouraging. We still need more data though,” he added.
But those figures are an average. The results for specific fish were not as encouraging. Largemouth and smallmouth bass had no apparent changes from pre-dredging contamination levels, while bullhead fish had big reductions in contamination levels. Yellow perch saw very little apparent change, but in the southernmost section of the river, from Schuylerville to Waterford, yellow perch is at or below the first target level for improvement, Klawinski said.
General Electric dumped PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a potential cancer-causing chemical, into the Hudson River for decades. The company dredged out some of the pollutants, but GE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEC are still monitoring the fish to determine a bill of health for the river.
Cheplowitz also told the CAG that the study of contamination in the floodplains is “years away” from being done. That assessment must be done before any cleanup plan can be developed.
Risk assessors are looking into whether it’s safe to walk barefoot at the riverbank, and even how much mud the average child would put into their mouth, Klawinski said.
As researchers test floodplains, they place a cloth and dirt cap over any areas of contamination.
“So I don’t think there should be any restrictions for recreation,” Klawinski said. “But if you get mud on you, wash it off.”
He noted that there are many natural contaminants in water and dirt — such as bacteria — and that people should always wash off afterward, regardless of the possibility of PCB contamination.