A River Runs Through It

The Grassroots Take on General Electric in the Battle To Clean Up the Hudson

Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival draws a crowd of thousands every year, people young and old who gather under the shady trees of Croton Point, New York to listen to folk songs drift out over the celebrated river. And although it has always emphasized more than just music, educating festival-goers on a range of environmental issues from solar energy to local wildlife, this year the weekend had one very pointed message: Rid the river of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).

Signs posted along the well-worn pathways between stages told a story as clear as any folk artist’s lyrics. It began in 1929 with Monsanto’s production of PCBs, a group of industrial chemicals, organochlorines, that would eventually be identified as endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins, notorious for their ability to cause cancer and interfere with normal development and reproduction.

When General Electric (GE) joined the cast in the early 1950s, it was using PCBs to manufacture thousands of electrical capacitors at its plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York, sites just a mile apart from one another on the Hudson River. Legally, it dumped one million pounds of PCBs into the waterway, untold amounts more oozed through fissures in the saturated bedrock beneath the two plants. By the time the federal government banned the production of PCBs in 1976, seven million pounds existed in leaky area landfills and 1.3 million had settled in the Hudson.

General Electric’s Hudson Falls, New York plant undergoing partial cleanup. Inset: Rich Schiafo of Scenic Hudson admits that the river is cleaner than it was, but PCB contamination remains.
Courtesy of GE; inset: Courtesy of Scenic Hudson

But that’s the problem with PCBs—they never really settle. Eel, catfish, carp, shad, herring, sturgeon and striped bass have all been fished commercially in the Hudson, and all have been found contaminated with PCBs at unsafe levels. Women of child-bearing age and children under the age of 15 are advised not to eat fish from the river, and just two years ago, elevated levels of PCBs were even found in the blood of Hudson Valley residents who don’t eat fish. PCBs have also been detected in area waterfowl, turtles, osprey, eagles, mink and owls.

This December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scheduled to finally propose what plan of action, if any, should be taken to clean up the contaminated river sediment. That’s why a group of environmental organizations, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Sierra Club, Scenic Hudson and Clearwater, decided, after working independently on the issue for years, to join forces this June weekend and raise awareness among the residents of the Valley.

“The EPA is hearing a lot of things, much of it from GE lobbyists,” says Baret Pinyoun of the Sierra Club, as she hands a pile of buttons to a waiting petitioner. “It needs to hear from people who are concerned about the river and who need a clean river now—not 20 years from now. December 2000 should be it,” Pinyoun says. “We know the river’s dirty, we know it is dangerous for the health of New Yorkers. We say, ?Enough!’”

The clean-up proposal preferred by the environmental groups is dredging what are considered the “hot spots” of the river, essentially vacuuming sediment from the 40 most heavily laden areas, and thus removing some 300,000 pounds of PCBs from a 40-mile stretch of the upper Hudson. According to the plan, the contaminated sediment would then be treated and destroyed through emerging new technologies.

The environmental organizers are frequently asked: “Won’t dredging just stir up the PCBs?” Dave Conover, acting environmental director for Clearwater, answers readily that they’re already stirred up, and stir up continuously, floating downstream through the water column. “PCBs are like the gift that keeps on giving,” explains Conover. “They concentrate in the food chain and interrupt the circle of life. It’s a vicious cycle that will not stop. We need to get them out.”

Under the nation’s Superfund law, GE could technically be forced to pay for the clean-up, which could carry a billion-dollar price tag. “GE, so far as we know, is the only party responsible for PCBs in the upper Hudson,” says Ann Rychlenski, a spokesperson for the EPA. “We know where they came from—the Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards plants.” And despite the lack of environmental laws back then, says Rychlenski, “[GE is] indeed held responsible.”

Heavy political pressure and a massive public relations campaign touting the improved health of the river, including full-page newspaper and prime time TV ads, has been GE’s response. The EPA’s decision has been successfully delayed 11 times since 1989, the year remediation of the river should have been reassessed after EPA announced a plan of “no-action” in 1984. Now a rider attached to a recent EPA appropriations bill could cause further delay.

According to a GE spokesperson, Mark Behan, dredging isn’t necessary. “The river is in the midst of a spectacular recovery,” says Behan. “Wildlife is sighted in record numbers, there’s a hugely popular fishery, tourism is rebounding. We see dramatic signs of improvement every day.” GE, points out Behan, has already spent $165 million to remediate the two factory sites (as required by New York under state Superfund law), and PCBs in the Hudson have declined 90 percent.

On that point, “they’re absolutely right,” says Rich Schiafo of Scenic Hudson. “The Hudson is a Clean Water Act success story. There used to be raw sewage and all kinds of industrial discharge, so the problem has improved. And PCBs have been banned for 30 years. But PCBs still lay at the bottom of the river,” Schiafo says, “and the answer is not to leave them there.”

If it weren’t for the shoulder-high signs dotting the grassy landscape and the petitions to the EPA resting on six-foot easels, one might never guess that the body of water dotted with kayakers this sunny weekend was actually the second-largest Superfund site in the country—190 miles of federally registered toxic waste.

But it’s a status that activists hope will begin to change next year. If the sentiments expressed at the festival are any indication, public momentum is behind the campaign.


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