Hudson Cleanup Could Present Dangers for Wildlife

The EPA and General Electric settle a long-running legal battle, announcing a plan for cleaning up toxic residues in the Hudson River. But the plan calls for "capping" much of the contaminated sediment, rather than removing it. That can leave the river and wetlands permanently crippled in their ability to provide habitat for wildlife.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has approved General Electric's draft proposal for the first stage of cleaning up New York's Upper Hudson River. It will be one of the biggest environmental dredging projects in the United States. Critics, including some senior government officials, say the plan doesn't do enough to protect habitat. So, ironically, this very expensive project to improve the river could make it less hospitable to wildlife. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Dave King has spent his life cleaning up some of this country's worst toxic messes. He helped design the remedy for one of the most notorious ones, Love Canal near Niagara Falls. But his current assignment as EPA site manager for the Hudson cleanup feels like an act of love.

Mr. DAVE KING (Environmental Protection Agency): I've been boating on the river for many years. I think this is probably the prettiest stretch of river of all the Hudson. There are sections that are more majestic, but this is one that's more comfortable. And so I want to do what I can.

SHOGREN: King takes me to a picturesque curve of the Upper Hudson at the north end of Rogers Island near Ft. Edward. The river is wide here. Forested slopes lead right down to the water's edge. It's snowing steadily, but you can tell that on a warm day, it would seem like a perfect fishing spot. That is, until you see the sign that says `do not possess, remove, or eat fish from this water.' The sign warns that the fish are contaminated with high levels of PCBs and other chemicals that may cause reproductive or developmental problems or cancer. For many years it was illegal even to carry a fishing rod here.

Mr. KING: We're actually standing on the town beach. We're looking north up the river. To our right is Irving Tissue, which is an ongoing paper mill. Due north from here, the river extends up and bends around to the right and that's where the two GE plants are.

SHOGREN: Over the years, those GE plants discharged hundreds of thousands of pounds of PCBs into the river. The plants use the chemicals as fire retardants in electrical devices called capacitors. The PCB is collected behind Ft. Edward Dam, which used to be directly across the river from where we're standing.

Mr. KING: Ft. Edward Dam was removed in 1973 because it was deteriorating.

SHOGREN: That unleashed the PCBs and sent them downriver, contaminating endangered sturgeon and commercial fisheries of blue crab and striped bass all the way to New York City, 200 miles away. Levels of PCBs in the fish have decreased in recent years but remain high, especially here.

Mr. KING: PCB levels in this particular area we found as high as 14,000 parts per million.

SHOGREN: That's 14,000 times higher than the level the EPA has set for the cleanup, one part per million. If all goes as planned, the cleanup will start just over a year from now. Along the five-mile stretch downstream from here, several special dredges will work round the clock. They're designed to scoop up polluted water and sediment without letting any run back into the river. Dredges will dump the contaminated mixture onto large barges which will take it to a treatment plant on Champlain Canal, adjacent to the river.

Mr. KING: It will be treated by literally squeezing the water out of the material, dewatering it, and then that'll be loaded onto wale(ph) for ultimate disposal.

SHOGREN: And what happens to the water?

Mr. KING: The water will be treated to drinking water standards and discharged back into the canal.

SHOGREN: If, after several dredging runs, GE still finds high levels of PCBs in the river bottom, the company could stop dredging. With the EPA's approval, GE could cap pollutants with a layer of clean sediment and leave them in the river. In some cases, GE could create an armored cap by putting rocks on top. Close to shore, GE could leave higher levels of pollution in place under caps. Capping is one part of the proposal that has sparked criticism, not just from environmentalists but from senior officials and federal agencies.

Mr. THOMAS BROSNAN (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): How much capping is going to happen and how much residual contamination is going to be left behind?

SHOGREN: Thomas Brosnan is the manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic branch. His agency sent EPA a blunt 73-page letter detailing how the plan fell short of what the government had promised. It was supposed to be a private document, but it was leaked to the press and then released in response to a freedom of information request from an environmental group. Brosnan says his agency is worried that wildlife would suffer.

Mr. BROSNAN: As written, it appears that habitats might not be restored to the way we would prefer and that there might be more capping than originally envisioned and that there might be more contamination left behind than originally envisioned.

SHOGREN: That contamination could keep building up in wildlife. And even if the contamination is contained, the caps themselves are destructive. They can prevent underwater plants from growing back in the Hudson.

(Soundbite of geese)

SHOGREN: Brosnan's counterpart at the Interior Department, Robert Foley, says the underwater and wetland plants that likely will be destroyed by the dredging are crucial for a whole community of wildlife along the Hudson.

Mr. ROBERT FOLEY (Interior Department): I brought you here because this is where there's a concentration of Canada geese and other migratory waterfowl that I wanted to show you. Those migratory birds over there are very important.

SHOGREN: Even on a bone-chilling winter day, there are a few 100 geese and some ducks swimming in a quiet cove. Wildlife are common on the Upper Hudson despite the pollution that lurks in the sediment below.

Mr. FOLEY: We have heavy use by migratory waterfowl, migratory songbirds. About three or four miles downstream eagles actively use the river. All of these animals depend on having a Hudson River with high-quality habitat, especially during stressful periods like we have now where the birds are migrating through.

SHOGREN: Ducks and geese live and eat amid the grasses and other plants that grow on the river bottom. Fish spawn, feed and hide from predators in these submerged plant beds, as do aquatic insects. GE's plan threatens this web of life in two ways. It's not just the rock caps. After dredging, the river bottom could be deeper, making it impossible for the underwater plants to get the sunlight they need to thrive. The natural environment on the Hudson could be cleaner but more desolate.

Mr. FOLEY: We have quality habitat, but those habitats are contaminated. And so the removals of PCB in some cases will take place in quality habitat that supports waterfowl or other species.

SHOGREN: Brosnan and Foley wrote GE in November to warn the company that it will be held liable if it fails to restore the submerged plants and wetlands that dredging destroys.

Mr. FOLEY: The goal that we would have is to achieve the best possible cleanup and the best possible habitat restoration at the end of the cleanup so that we're able to ensure that these birds have places to stop, feed, rest, and then move on during migratory periods.

SHOGREN: Officials from EPA and GE say that the final dredging design report, which will be out in a few months, will include a comprehensive plan for restoring habitat. Brosnan and Foley are reserving judgment until they see the details.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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