EPA River Clean-Up Uncovers Pools of Cancer-Causing PCBs

August 24, 2009 - 7:29 PM
A controversial EPA dredging project in the Hudson River originally designed to stop the possibility of PCBs from potentially contaminating fish, has now struck pockets of the cancer-causing chemicals.

General Electric is overseeing the detoxification of the river. (AP Photo / Hanns Pennink)

(CNSNews.com) – A controversial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dredging project in the Hudson River -- originally designed to prevent cancer-causing chemicals in the riverbed from contaminating fish -- has struck “oil,” so to speak – a toxic “oil” of previously unknown pockets of liquid polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
 
The revelation adds to the concerns of locals near Fort Edward, N.Y. – some of whom had already sought new drinking water sources in order to avoid the contaminated river water.
 
The revelation also comes less than a week after dredgers destroyed an archaeological site by removing contaminated logs from historic Fort Edward, and less than two weeks after dredging was temporarily suspended due to the high level of contamination it had caused.
 
The dredging project was implemented to remove river sediments contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were outlawed in the 1970s after being found to cause cancer.
 
However, the project recently discovered “sheens” of PCB oil on the surface of the river -- an indication, the EPA said, that the river floor contained not only contaminated silt, but more potent pockets of pure PCB oil – and that the dredging is releasing the oil into the river water.
 
“There’s a lot more PCB contamination in this area than we had anticipated,” Kristen Skopeck, spokeswoman for the EPA’s Hudson River field office, told CNSNews.com.
 
“We have seen oil sheens on the water,” she added. “That’s why we have the absorbent materials and the booms around all of the dredges now.”
 
But dredging has not been slowed by the pockets, Skopeck emphasized.
 
“It’s not really affecting dredging, that’s why we’ve taken those mitigation measures to, you know, to counteract the sheens,” she said.
 
General Electric is both the company that originally discharged PCBs into the river and the company that is carrying out the dredging for the EPA.
 
General Electric spokesman Martin Behan told CNSNews.com that the sheen was anticipated.
 
"It's not different from what we would expect,” Behan said. “What happens is, when, in the process of removing sediment that contains PCB oil, it's not uncommon for a sheen to develop on the surface, and we capture that material with absorbent booms. This is an expected part of the dredging project."
 
However, a local health-risk consultant does not share the positive outlook of the EPA and GE.
 
Dr. Robert Michaels, CEO of the RAM TRAC Corporation, a Schenectady, N.Y., consulting firm which specializes in environmental toxicology, human health risk assessment, and toxicological risk management, told CNSNews.com he is greatly concerned about the project.
 
“There (are) clamshell dredges discovering this liquid, and they can’t hold the liquid,” he said. “So instead of looking at sediments that have parts per billion or parts per trillion (levels of PCB content), we’re talking about material that’s 100 percent (contaminated) that’s now being mobilized – partially by the discovery process. And if they can’t pick it up with a dredge, then they have to leave it in the river, and so the currents will distribute those PCBs downriver.”
 
Michaels also said that large amounts of PCB "oils" could travel downriver without showing up in the EPA’s water quality measurements.
 
“PCB oils are heavy,” he said, “so if they’re sampling five miles downstream, they may not find any trace of these high PCB levels, because they’re going to be hugging the bottom.”
 
His skepticism also extended to the EPA’s plan’s to contain any PCBs that they stir up.
 
“EPA is talking about, you know, all kinds of engineering controls that will reduce the concentrations at the air monitors and the water monitors by using fewer dredges and adding silt curtains,” he said. "But the silt curtains are not very good at capturing PCBs, and they pass right through them.”
 
Residents of downriver towns, who use the Hudson as a source of drinking water, are also very concerned.
 
John Lawler, a supervisor in the town of Waterford, N.Y., told CNSNews.com that his town had to find a new source of drinking water due the contamination caused by the dredging.
 
“Given the fact that it is the largest toxic cleanup in the nation’s history, we felt uncomfortable and at risk to continue to use the Hudson River as a drinking source,” Lawler said, “so we’ve engaged in what I can only describe as a five-year long battle with the EPA to make certain that we have access to safe, affordable water.”
 
Lawler said his community now gets its drinking water from nearby Troy, N.Y., which means water costs are rising.
 
“My residents have seen an increase of about 25 percent of their water bills, and we don’t think that’s fair," he said. “We think it’s immoral to suggest to people -- and from EPA’s perspective, leave people -- the choice of either paying more for water or drinking from the site of the largest environmental cleanup, toxicological cleanup, in the nation’s history.”
 
He added: “We’ve sued General Electric for the increased costs.”
 
Lawler noted that, while his own community has been able to switch to an alternate water source, some communities have not.
 
“The town of Stillwater (N.Y.) is still using the Hudson River as a water source, which I think it’s just inexcusable that EPA would put them in that position.”
 
GE’s Behan would not comment on the lawsuit directly.
 
“From the outset of the dredging project, both GE and EPA recognized that protection of the downstream drinking water supplies was of utmost importance, and to that end the EPA imposed on this project the strictest water quality protection standards that have ever been imposed on any environmental dredging project in the United States,” Behan told CNSNews.com. “The dredging project was designed in a way to meet those standards.”
 
He added: “EPA reached an agreement with the municipalities to fund the development or establishment of alternative public water supplies for them during the dredging project, and as part of that agreement, GE provided $7 million dollars to fund those projects and up to an additional $750,000 to cover the cost of water should it be necessary to purchase the alternative supplies during the dredging project."
 
"The towns have taken the position that they would switch to the alternative supplies at the beginning of the dredging project, regardless of whether the level of PCBs in the water exceeded the federal safe drinking water standard."