Problems Plague Hudson Cleanup

fromNCPR

After years of delay, the clean-up of the Hudson River is off to a rocky start. Critics say the federal government's massive Superfund project is leaking too many toxic PCBs into the air and water.

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Back in May, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a massive effort to scour tons of toxic PCBs from the Hudson River. It's the largest and most complicated super fund cleanup project in U.S. history.

But as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, this summer's work has been plagued by problems and controversy.

BRIAN MANN: On a muggy August afternoon, two barges work just offshore from Fort Edward. Bright yellow backhoes haul PCB contaminated muck from the river bottom.

(Soundbite of backhoes)

MANN: The toxic sludge was dumped in the Hudson for decades by General Electric. Now, the company and the EPA are working together to scour a 40-mile stretch of the river with GE picking up the tab. But the $750 million project has been controversial from the start and people here were angered again this month by news that the dredges are stirring up far more PCBs into the air and water than the EPA predicted.

At a raucous meeting in Fort Edward's fire hall, the EPA's Dave King used a slide projector to show a series of spikes in PCB contamination, one so severe that the cleanup was shut down for several days.

Mr. DAVID KING (Director, Environmental Protection Agency's Hudson River Field Office): Doesn't mean that anyone is in immediate danger or has an exposure that's of concern is one of, okay, let's see what's going on here. What can we do to try to knock those (unintelligible)?

MANN: King said PCB levels were higher than expected, in part, because of heavy rain this summer and because the dredges are finding far more pollution than anticipated. Under the first layer of sediment, the backhoe stirred up slimy pools of PCB contaminated oil. The development is embarrassing for the agency, which spent years arguing that even micro amounts of the chemical could endanger human health. Dozens of locals, including Peter Terrana(ph), say the project should be scrapped or redesigned.

Mr. PETER TERRANA: You are denying the link between that flow of PCBs and the uptake in fish flesh and the risk to human health. All that data is in.

MANN: EPA officials say new equipment and new dredging strategies have already cut the amount of pollution leaking from the project. But at a time when the project didn't need any more bad publicity, people here are also furious over damage done in mid-August to a historic site on the river. A dredge operator tore up wooden beams that were part of a landing area for the original Fort Edward built by the British in 1755.

Marilyn Pulver is a former town supervisor.

Ms. MARILYN PULVER (Former Fort Edward Supervisor): It's sad to me, really hurt. You can take our mud, but you can't take our history. I really need an explanation.

MANN: Federal officials say they'll pay to repair the site and begin a proper archeological dig. All these challenges will be reviewed in the fall by an independent advisory group that will then make recommendations about the project's future. The EPA insists that dredging will go forward next summer regardless of those findings.

General Electric has argued that it might opt out of the cleanup if too many problems are found. Such a move would almost certainly set off another round of fierce litigation and debate over the Hudson's future.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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