Environmental groups say EPA figures show that General Electric’s dredging of the Hudson River to remove chemicals the company had dumped had not accomplished the goals of the cleanup. Times Union file photo

NY - Environmental report shows rising PCB levels in upper Hudson River

The groups say PCB levels in the river show dredging was not as effective as the federal government predicted

FORT EDWARD — A coalition of environmental groups said Tuesday that the remedial dredging of the Hudson River by General Electric a decade ago to remove carcinogenic chemicals was not as effective as the federal government predicted when they ordered the cleanup.

The groups, which include Riverkeeper and the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the remediation a failure in a report that analyzed Environmental Protection Agency data about the current levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the river. General Electric dumped 1.2 million pounds of the carcinogenic industrial chemical into the Hudson River from 1947 to 1977 near its facilities north of Albany. These “forever chemicals” do not naturally break down. GE entered into a consent decree with the federal government to dredge the river bottom north of Troy, a project the company completed in 2015.

However, the EPA must review the Superfund site for five years. The coalition used EPA data to prepare its review, which it discussed with the EPA. Scenic Hudson President Ned Sullivan said the federal agency “politely agreed to disagree” regarding the report’s findings.

The environmental groups focused on two sets of data, both of which the EPA will look at for its own report on the effectiveness of the dredging next year. The first set is PCB levels in the sediment of the river bottom. The second is PCB levels in three species of fish found in the upper Hudson.

Figures in the report show the PCB levels on the river bottom are falling far more slowly than the EPA expected — and the PCB levels in the section of the upper Hudson, closest to the GE plants, actually rose between 2016 and 2021. Similarly, the concentrations of PCBs in fish are not falling fast enough to reach the EPA’s goals, and concentrations rose between 2020 and 2021, the last available year of data.

Sullivan said when presenting the report that he had theories as to why the concentrations were rising, but nothing definitive that he would discuss.

The concentrations of PCBs found in fish were especially problematic, according to Sierra Club President Aaron Mair, since people still eat fish from the river, some on a subsistence basis.

The EPA wanted PCB concentrations in fish fillets to fall to 0.4 mg/kg PCB by 2020 and 0.2 mg/kg by 2032. In 2021, concentrations were .71 mg/kg, according to the report, up from .63 mg/kg in 2020.

Anglers are only supposed to eat one fish a month from the river and pregnant or breast-feeding women are not supposed to eat any. Signs by some fishing spots state this limit, but Mair said this amounted to “pawning off” to fishers a problem GE created.

The consumption advisories amounted to a “risk-avoidance” strategy, according to the report, which reads: “This strategy forces the public to alter their behaviors so as to avoid the harms from exposure to contamination. The burden is on the risk-bearers to protect themselves — in this case, the fish consumers — rather than those who caused the risk (polluters) or those who are tasked with protecting the public from the dangers of toxic pollution in systems like the Hudson River (EPA).”

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