SARATOGA SPRINGS — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged there could still be a lot of PCB cleanup around the Hudson River, and possibly in it, to do.
Its case-building process for additional action frustrated local residents and groups, who want their land and water to be safe sooner rather than later. That was particularly true of those in the floodplains, separate from the river cleanup.
Bound by legal Superfund obligations, it did not appear the EPA could hit the fast forward button on data collection, but Region 2 Administrator Pete Lopez listened to residents Tuesday during the Superfund site’s community advisory group meeting, held at the Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center.
The advisory group is made up of local, state and federal government officials, local interest groups and environmental organizations.
It was the first time the group met after Lopez announced at the beginning of April that the agency was deferring its decision on whether the General Electric Co.’s $1.7 billion dredging project worked; he also announced that GE was done dredging.
Shortly after that announcement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state would sue, and Tuesday, Lopez said he welcomed assessments and challenges to the EPA’s decisions.
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“We don’t take umbrage,” Lopez said Tuesday. “If that (lawsuit) advances, we’re OK with that.”
The Superfund site stems back to the 1940s, when GE had factories in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. Over three decades it released about 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are probable carcinogens and can have negative impacts on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
From 2009 to 2015, GE dredged about 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment from the Hudson River between Troy and Fort Edward.
Lopez said while GE has finished dredging, it will be decades before it's issued a certification of completion of the work, meaning the river is clean.
Now, a lot is riding on the Hudson River’s fish.
“Our goal is to look at the health of the fish as an indicator, if you will, of the health of the river,” Lopez said.
Lopez compared the Hudson River to a patient in surgery. He said the “offending material” was removed, and now “we wait to see what happens to the patient.” The EPA will analyze at least eight years of fish tissue before deciding if GE needs to do more cleanup work.
Althea Mullarkey, from the group Scenic Hudson, didn’t agree with the patient analogy.
“They don’t just go away,” she said of PCBs. “They just go someplace else, and it becomes a problem somewhere else.”
She did thank the EPA for deferring its decision on the cleanup and the work it has done, as did Schuylerville Mayor Dan Carpenter and others at the table. Mullarkey did not agree with EPA’s decision to say GE was done with dredging, however.
While the DEC and EPA continue to have some disagreement on whether PCB levels in fish and sediment are declining at the rates expected in the upper Hudson, both agreed that PCB levels in fish in the lower Hudson River are not declining enough.
“One could argue we may have more cleanup to do down river,” Lopez said to Deputy Commissioner of EPA’s Region 2 Walter Mugdan. Mudgan agreed.
Mullarkey asked if there was a timeline for that cleanup, but Mudgan said EPA needed to collect more data before it could sit down with GE.
Separately from the dredging of the river, EPA is assessing the contamination of the floodplains. Last year it collected 222 samples from 72 properties, and more sampling will take place this year.
It will be five years or more before the EPA has enough data to approach GE and decide on a specific cleanup action, said Gary Klawinski, director of the EPA’s Hudson River Field Office.
This was bad news to many at the table.
Julie Stokes, an advisory group member representing the Schuylerville Area Chamber of Commerce, said that would be a long time for private property owners to wait. PCB contamination is affecting their property values, and it’s also affecting recreational opportunities at Fort Hardy Park, the Old Champlain Canal and the village’s kayak launch, she added.
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Andrew Squire, manager of Valley Grown Farms in Easton, said he would probably be dead before the matter was settled.
Lopez said the data collection was a common practice with Superfund sites, and interim mitigation and early actions could help protect public health before a long-term solution is established.
David Mathis, also from the Schuylerville area and representing boaters, said he was concerned, too, about people swimming in the river. EPA and DEC officials said it was OK for people to swim, but coming into contact with the mud could be problematic.
Kevin Farrar, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Environmental Remediation, reminded people that no one should be eating any of the fish in the Upper Hudson.
The community advisory group expects to meet again sometime in June.