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Every New Yorker knows that while the Hudson is likely at least slightly cleaner than the East River (and certainly cleaner than the Gowanus Canal), it’s by no means recommended for swimming or drinking. Now, a legal agreement between the US Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and General Electric (GE) – known for polluting the river for decades – will help determine just how dirty the New York City-adjacent Hudson is. 

Activity on the Hudson River on Sunday afternoon. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Known as the largest Superfund site in the US (a term for significantly polluted areas deemed for restorative action by the EPA) the Hudson River has been the focus of a long-term cleanup initiative after years of corporate pollution.

For 30 years between 1947 and 1977, GE dumped approximately 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (known as PCBs) – which are highly carcinogenic compounds – into the Hudson River near their capacitor manufacturing plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, New York, flowing 160 miles south to the lower Hudson bisecting New York City and New Jersey. The energy company began the first phase of their cleanup process in 2009 and has been assessing pollution levels in the Upper Hudson over the last several decades. The Lower Hudson (south of Troy, New York) has not yet had a thorough analysis of the remaining PCB damage.

While GE has been conducting ongoing assessments of the contamination along the Hudson, according to New York clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper, the newest agreement between the DEP and the energy conglomerate states that GE must analyze the remnants of PCB damage in the Lower Hudson from Troy to Battery Park in service of determining whether further cleanup action is needed. The group has been pushing officials to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the site. 

Erin Doran, an attorney for Riverkeeper, said of the assessment: “Investigating the PCB contamination throughout the Hudson – and determining how to address it – is absolutely critical for the health of the river, the life that relies on it, and people around it. We hope this agreement is a first step towards effectively addressing PCB pollution in the Lower Hudson River. We urge the EPA to ensure that the study is comprehensive, that it proceeds without delay, and that it leads to the actions needed to help restore the river back to health.”

“Riverkeeper is encouraged by the EPA’s agreement with GE to perform sampling in the Lower Hudson River. The EPA must continue to hold GE accountable for all of its PCB pollution, including the contamination in the vast 160-mile stretch of the Hudson from Troy to the Battery. Families along the Hudson River should be able to safely eat fish caught from the river without fear of health risks posed by PCBs. We are still a long way from that goal. After years of calling for action from EPA and GE to address PCB contamination in the lower Hudson, we are encouraged that this study is happening and look forward to a meaningful cleanup to follow,” Riverkeeper’s President Tracy Brown added

Robert Atterbury, Executive Vice President Park Relationships & Programs of Hudson River Park Trust told W42ST: “There is so much about the Hudson River habitat that our science community still seeks to understand. GE’s sampling, overseen by the EPA, will enhance knowledge about legacy pollutants like PCBs and the extent of their impact in the Lower Hudson River. Here in Hudson River Park, we look forward to seeing how the results of that  research can inform and guide some of the goals identified in our Estuarine Sanctuary Management Plan, as well as other regional environmental action agendas.”  

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos told W42ST: “New York State is committed to a comprehensive cleanup and restoration of the Hudson River. EPA’s agreement directing GE to undertake additional sampling in the Lower Hudson is a critical step to address historic PCB contamination. This new data will supplement the extensive sampling efforts previously conducted by DEC, EPA, and GE to evaluate the health of one of New York’s most important waterbodies. New York State DEC looks forward to continuing to work with EPA to understand what further actions can be taken to address unacceptable levels of contamination that remain in the river.”

Seggos and the DEC have been under fire lately for allowing ConEdison to regularly pump millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with selenium, lead, chromium, copper and chloroform into the Hudson River, leading to a lawsuit by some members of the City Club of New York (a civilian-led advocacy group promoting responsible urban land use) against the agency under the Federal Clean Water Act. 

Workers use excavators with environmental clamshell buckets to dredge the Hudson River. The PCB-contaminated sediment is emptied onto floating barges. Photo: EPA.gov

Despite being hospitable enough to host dolphins on a recent summer afternoon, it appears that a significant analysis and cleanup will be required to make the Hudson a cleaner place – and one where you aren’t likely to see styrofoam floating above the service or know carcinogens lurk below. 

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2 Comments

  1. I thought GE wiggled out of responsibility to correct long ago…Also though dredging stirred up too many pcbs to be a solution…Hope the right things happen

  2. Having GE in charge of the sampling when they are the party that did the polluting?! The EPA ought to be doing the sampling and the testing itself. Which side are you on, EPA??

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