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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The magnificent scenery and rich history of New York's Hudson River Valley are the subject of legends like Rip Van Winkle and the Last of the Mohicans. The Hudson's environmental problems are also legendary. Two hundred miles of the river were contaminated by industrial chemicals called PCB's more than twenty years ago. And recent studies by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that potentially dangerous levels of these chemicals are still in the river. Living On Earth contributor, Richard Schiffman has this update on one of the nation's longest running environmental controversies.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
Along the west side of Manhattan, begins one the saddest toxic zones in this country. The mighty and magnificent Hudson River would be a wonderful playground for people, and spawning ground for fish, if only it were safe. But, more than 20 years ago, 200 miles of the river were contaminated by industrial chemicals called "poly-chloro-biphenyls," PCBs. PCBs are close chemical cousins of the dioxins, and nearly as poisonous. Recent studies by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, show that despite some valiant efforts at cleaning up the river, dangerous levels of PCBs still linger. Living on Earth contributor Richard Schiffman has this update on one of the nation's longest-running environmental controversies.

[Waves break against riverbank]

SCHIFFMAN: I'm standing on the banks of the Hudson River, just downstream from the town of Hudson. It's a scene worthy of Mark Twain; an early summer's day, a wide river, and on a rocky spit of land, just east of the railway tracks--

[Train passes, hoots]

SCHIFFMAN:--two young boys sit, fishing. But these boys have to worry about something that never concerned Huck and Tom on the Mississippi. If they catch some fish today, will they dare to eat them? New York State Health advisories suggest that's not such a good idea.

REYNOLDS: Each time you get a fishing license, they give you this book, that tells you what you can eat, what you can't eat, and where. And it tells you the percentages of PCBs in each fish.

SCHIFFMAN: Greg Reynolds lives in the town of Hudson. He still fishes the river, although word of chemical contamination has scared off most people from doing so. Reynolds hopes some day, somebody will find a way to get the PCBs out of the Hudson. About 2 hours north of here, an effort is underway to do just that.

[Massive waterfalls fill the background]

SCHIFFMAN: The Hudson Falls is breath-taking, a mini-Niagara stretching the length of a football field. It's hard to imagine that more than one million pounds of PCB-laden oil were discharged into the river from the General Electric plant on the bluff just above me. Another GE plant in the town of Fort Edward, a few miles downstream, also contributed to the contamination. For more than 3 decades, these plants used PCBs as an insulating fluid, in appliances like refrigerators. PCBs were banned 20 years ago. The Hudson Falls plant was shut down soon after that. But toxic oil still oozes into the river here.

HAGGARD: They did find a seep of oil, and it's--you can see the buoy, just located right down-river about 30 feet.

SCHIFFMAN: John Haggard is in charge of General Electric's state- mandated multi-million dollar clean-up of the site.

[Background falls drumming]

HAGGARD: The sea diver found down here, we were able to measure and monitor and collect that material over a period of time, and what we found is that was giving us about a half a pound of PCB a day.

SCHIFFMAN: This underwater leak has been sealed off, but other seeps may remain. Heavy PCB oil has been migrating through a warren of abandoned pipes and tunnels beneath the plant, into the water table. And from there, into the river.

(Motors running)

SCHIFFMAN: To stop the leaks, GE crews are drilling wells to purify the groundwater. In the process, they're siphoning off more than 300 pounds of PCB oil a week. John Haggard says that as a result of these efforts, PCBs can no longer be detected just downstream from here.

HAGGARD: It's this controlling the sources of PCBs in this vicinity. It really is a key to accelerating the recovery of the river. If we want to reduce the PCB levels in the fish and water, it's working up here and solving this problem that's going to do that.

SCHIFFMAN: Not everyone shares Haggard's optimism. A recent report by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, the sixth to come out since 1984 on the subject, suggests that the problems run much deeper: as deep as the river itself. Douglas Tomchuck is EPA's project manager for the Hudson.

TOMCHUCK: What this report does is contradict the idea that the PCBs will go away, okay? And I think a lot of people believe that. Whether that was what GE had actually said or not is irrelevant.

SCHIFFMAN: What GE had been saying is that microbes would break down most of the PCBs already in the Hudson and render them safe. But the EPA claims that after more than 20 years, these chemicals remain as toxic as ever. The report goes on to say that despite GE's success in controlling leaks at their Hudson Falls plant site, PCBs continue to move downstream. The question is, where are these chemicals coming from?

(Milling conversation)

SCHIFFMAN: To answer this and other questions, a small army of researchers and government officials gathered recently in Albany, New York. Some, like geologist Richard Bopp, have been studying the problem for most of their professional lives.

BOPP: Okay, what's the tool that we use? The basic tool is sediment cores and dating sediment cores. The trick is to find areas where sediment is accumulating continuously and at relatively rapid rates. You saw maybe 20 sites...

SCHIFFMAN: Professor Bopp tells his colleagues at the meeting that the answers they're seeking may lie at the bottom of the river. He says his research has confirmed that there are hot spots of PCBs in the Thompson Island Pool, a calm stretch of the Hudson a few miles below the GE plant sites.

(People milling)

BOPP: You can still find the very high levels in sediments that were deposited 20 and 30 years ago. These are areas where we see diving ducks feeding in the bottom of the river, where we see boats anchored and people swimming off those boats. Where it would be quite easy to imagine someone wading into or sticking their arm into mud that's contaminated with PCBs at levels of several hundred parts per million.

SCHIFFMAN: Most experts now agree that the Thompson Island Pool is the major source of the PCBs, which are contaminating the rest of the Hudson all the way to New York Harbor. And which are destroying the once-thriving commercial fishing industry on the river. Joshua Cleland is with the organization Scenic Hudson.

CLELAND: The PCBs are coming from the sediment hot spots at the rate of at least a pound and a half every day, and that will probably continue for at least a decade or decades, unless something is done to control the source.

SCHIFFMAN: Scenic Hudson and other environmental groups are calling on GE to dredge these PCB hot spots. But the company is resisting this idea. Dredging could cost GE hundreds of millions of dollars, and company spokesman Dave Warshaw believes it's unnecessary. He says the PCBs in the river are being covered over by clean sediments and will soon be harmless.

(Bird song)

WARSHAW: Dredging would be the most disruptive, riskiest solution. It would address the wrong source of PCBs, and it would not be effective in reducing risk in the environment. And for anyone to choose a solution that is the most disruptive and has the least effect, we think that's bad policy.

(Voices at a diner. Woman: "John, want home fires with your omelette?" John: "No, thanks." Woman: "Homemade toast?" John: "Yeah, that would be great.")

SCHIFFMAN: Lunch time patrons of Vicki's Restaurant in Fort Edward also have their doubts about the wisdom of dredging.

McGUE: My main concern, I think the concern of a lot of people in this area, is if dredging was proven to be effective, what do you do with the material that you take out? It's going to have to go somewhere, and I think there's a lot of concerns locally with what happens in that case.

SCHIFFMAN: The concern is that that the highly toxic mud will be deposited in a local landfill, just moving the problem from the water onto the land. But Randy McGue says he's uneasy living close to the polluted river.

(Milling voices)

McGUE: When you can't see it, it's not such a big problem. But when you see the frogs with 6 legs and fish floating at the top, you know, you kind of think about it then.

SCHIFFMAN: You've seen that.

McGUE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it's disturbing. I still see people fishing out of there and I don't know what they're doing with that stuff, but I wouldn't do it myself. And I wouldn't let anybody I know consume anything out of there.

SCHIFFMAN: A recent study of tree swallows near Fort Edward shows it's more than just fish that are being affected by the PCBs. Ann Secord is a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

(Bird song)

SECORD: We found very high levels of PCBs in those upper Hudson River birds, the highest that have been reported for the species. We also observed some effects on reproduction, growth of these tree swallows, that may be related to PCBs.

SCHIFFMAN: Effects like lower birth rates and developmental problems. Effects similar to those observed in human beings. PCBs are members of a class of synthetic chemicals which mimic hormones that regulate aspects of human growth and development. Dr. David Carpenter, the Dean of the School of Public Health in Albany, says the chemicals may impact a wide range of biological functions.

CARPENTER: We're looking at IQ. We're looking at the incidence of mental illness because of the fact that PCBs decrease the levels of this neurotransmitter, dopamine, that we know to be related. Decreases are related to depression and mental illness. We're looking at physical growth and development because we know PCBs are depressing thyroid function.

SCHIFFMAN: And PCBs may cause cancer in humans, although this is yet to be proven. Dr. Carpenter says the greatest risk from eating PCB-laden fish is for pregnant and nursing mothers and for young children. And these risks are not limited to the Hudson Valley. Recent studies of fish and seal meat in northern Canada show high levels of PCBs. This despite the fact that the nearest industrial sources of the chemicals are thousands of miles away. Like chlorofluorohydrocarbons, which are threatening the Earth's ozone layer, PCBs are now airborne. And they've become a global problem. Brian Bush is a research scientist at New York State's Wadsworth Laboratories. He's been studying the evaporation of Hudson River PCBs into the atmosphere. And he's worried about some of the places they're ending up.

BUSH: The PCB concentrations at both poles were measured, and there are significant levels of PCBs at the North and the South Pole. So they are in fact ubiquitous. And obviously what we should do is stop them being emitted. We've got to start somewhere. A 200-mile long tract of river, like the Hudson River, is a perfect place to start.

(Splashing water)

SCHIFFMAN: Back at Hudson, New York, the 2 boys we met earlier in the story are packing up their fishing poles. They didn't catch anything today. Perhaps it's just as well. They probably don't know about the PCB controversy that's been swirling like a slow Hudson River tide since before they were born. They also probably don't know that earlier this spring, for the first time in more than 100 years, an eagle chick was born on the Hudson. It happened on an island just across the river from where they were fishing. Some people say the birth is a sign the Hudson is getting cleaner. Others are not so sure. But one thing is certain: the debate over Hudson River PCBs will continue. The EPA is set to publish its recommendations on what to do about the problem some time during 1999. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.



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