Fort Edward, NY — Crews dredging a polluted stretch of the upper Hudson River this year battled high water, old logging debris and unexpected levels of PCB contamination that slowed progress.
But as the first phase of one of the most costly and complex federal Superfund projects wraps up this month, regulators say results are generally positive and show dredging can work. They are preparing for a far more expansive second phase, which would clean up 40 miles of river and likely push total project costs to more than $700 million.
“We took on Mother Nature. She threw everything at us but the kitchen sink, from timber, to boats that were sunk, to tree branches,” said George Pavlou, acting regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. “We prevailed in the end.”
Dredging began in the rural area in May after decades of argument over how to deal with tons of PCBs that flowed down the river in 1973 after a dam was removed. Upriver General Electric plants in Fort Edward and neighboring Hudson Falls discharged wastewater containing PCBs for decades before the popular lubricant and coolant was banned in 1977. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are considered probable carcinogens.
Under an agreement between General Electric and the EPA, the company paid the cost of dredging concentrated pockets of PCBs this year about 40 miles north of Albany. GE treated the toxic waste at a nearby plant and shipped the dried remains by rail to a western Texas site for burial in a landfill designed to isolate the treated PCBs from the surroundings.
Crews dredged 10 of 18 PCB “hot spots” targeted this year. They removed more than 240,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, but expect to fall shy of the original target of 265,000 cubic yards when dredging ends mid-month.
Progress was slowed because contamination was often deeper and more concentrated than expected. In some areas, crews removed 60 to 80 percent more sediment than expected, said GE spokesman Mark Behan.
In particular, contaminated debris left from the old Adirondack logging industry complicated work.
“There was substantially more wood debris than expected, and the wood debris at the bottom of the river made it impossible for the sampling to determine the depth of the contaminated sediment,” Behan said.
At one point, dredging crews accidentally ripped into the original Fort Edward, which had been buried in a river bank, prompting an archaeological excavation of the 1750s British fort and revelations about military engineering of forts in the wilderness.
It’s still not clear if the eight unfinished hot spots will be cleaned up next year or rolled into Phase 2, which the EPA wants to start in 2011.
Barges will start leaving the river in the coming weeks. Results of the work will be analyzed by General
Electric, the EPA and an independent panel of experts with an eye toward making improvements for the next phase, which could take five years.
Though GE spent $629 million related to PCBs from 1990 through this spring, it has yet to agree to pay for Phase 2. Behan said the company will make a decision after the Phase 1 data are analyzed and the EPA determines the scope of what it wants for the next phase. If GE declines, the EPA still has options under Superfund law to make sure the work is done.