Another group is coming after GE to clean up the Hudson River.
The Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees have warned for years they might demand more than what GE agreed to do in its agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.
On Wednesday, they entered the fray with a report, cataloging the staggeringly high levels of PCBs still in the river. It is the first step in a legal process that could force GE to do more dredging.
In the Fort Edward area, PCBs are more than 1,000 times higher than the level at which it would be safe to eat fish again. In the Schuylerville and Saratoga area, PCBs are more than 10,000 times higher than the safe level, according to the report.
That’s as of 2014, but the trustees are continuing to track water samples and expect the damage to continue. EPA officials said they have not seen a significant drop in PCB amounts in the last three years, although they see indications that levels are decreasing slowly. They anticipate it will take more than 55 years before fish are safe to eat again.
Even with a slight decrease in PCBs, the surface water is tremendously unsafe, the trustees said. It’s dangerous for everyone: the animals that live in or near the river and the people who eat the fish from the river.
“The best way to make these injuries to not happen anymore is to reduce the amount of PCBs in the river,” said Margaret Byrne, Hudson River assessment and restoration manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The trustees want additional PCB removal and other actions, which could include increasing the amount of fish in the river and rebuilding habitats. The trustees have been investigating the death rate of mink kits; PCB levels in fish, frogs and other creatures; and similar impacts for many years.
But Wednesday’s report is different. In that report, they legally assert that natural resources were injured by PCB contamination.
Natural resource trustees must first document damage and then assert that an injury has been made. They then can determine the amount of restoration needed and take that to whomever is blamed for the damage. At that point, there can be a quick settlement — or a lengthy legal fight.
“Most natural resource damage cases have been resolved through a negotiated settlement,” Byrne said. “This has yet to be resolved.”
In a press release with the report, the trustees were careful not to use the word dredging. They want “additional PCB removal,” they said. But Byrne acknowledged dredging is the best known way to remove PCBs.
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The report itself focused on the sheer amount of PCBs still in the surface water of the river.
The data collected “demonstrates that, of the 8,667 samples that contained PCBs at detectable concentrations, all exhibited PCB concentrations that exceed one or more guidance criteria and regulatory standards. Even the lowest concentrations measured are many orders of magnitude greater” than safe water levels, the report said.
GE has defended its work in the dredging as recently as Monday.
“As EPA confirmed in a report last May, and as the data clearly and unequivocally demonstrate, the Hudson River dredging project is achieving EPA’s goals of protecting public health and the environment,” said Mark Behan of Behan Communications, which was hired by GE to handle media coverage related to the PCB cleanup.
Behan said that PCB levels had declined “sharply as expected,” although DEC officials have said the results show the river will not recover after the dredging as quickly as had been anticipated.
When DEC tested the river last year, it found that some areas were three times as contaminated as they were expected to be after the dredging. The most contaminated area is just south of Fort Edward, from the Thompson Island Dam through Lock 6 to the Northumberland Dam in Washington County.
Behan also said the dredging “removed the vast majority of PCBs in the Upper Hudson,” which is also questioned by others. Some members of the Community Action Group, which has met regularly to get reports from EPA on the work, said GE left “toxic doughnuts” during the dredging by removing only some of the PCBs.
The dredging plan was supposed to remove 64 percent of the PCBs in river Section 2, which is bounded by Fort Miller dam and the Northumberland dam at Route 4. In the end, only 36 percent of the PCBs were removed there.
EPA Project Manager Gary Klawinski defended the work, saying that more PCBs were removed than expected in the other two river sections. In Section 1, 79 percent was to be removed, but dredging actually removed 81 percent of the PCBs. In Section 3, 4.4 percent of the PCBs were to be removed but dredging removed 4.9 percent.
Behan said that, overall, GE removed nearly 80 percent of the PCBs, which resulted in a 73 percent drop in PCB contamination levels in the water.
“GE has met or exceeded all of its obligations on the Hudson River, removed twice the volume of PCBs that EPA anticipated and invested $1.7 billion in what EPA called a ‘historic achievement,’” he said.