PCB CONTAMINATION OF THE HUDSON: IS THE RIVER CLEANING ITSELF?

PCBs in the Hudson

PCB contamination is considered the most serious environmental problem affecting the Hudson River. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used by many industries as insulation fluids in capacitors, transformers and electrical systems. General Electric was one company that used PCBs for these purposes. Two GE plants at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls dumped over 500,000 pounds of these odorless, colorless toxics into the Hudson over a 30 year period before they were ordered by New York State to stop in 1977. Since that time, the spread of PCBs throughout the river and its food chain has created one of the most extensive Hazardous waste problems in the nation.

What are PCBs?

PCBs are suspected carcinogens which have been linked with reproductive disorders, male sterility and birth defects in humans. They may also cause liver dysfunction, digestive disorders, chloracne, headaches and fatigue. Although fish consumption poses the greatest threat to human health, there are also some risks to local populations from the release of PCBs to the air and from their presence within the drinking water supplies of many communities that get their water from the Hudson.

Is the River Cleaning itself?

Data on PCB levels in Hudson River fish proves the problem is not solving itself. The Striped Bass commercial fishery was closed in 1976, following the discovery of PCB levels in the fish population far exceeding what is considered safe for human consumption. In 1978, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) initiated intensive monitoring of PCB levels in fish. The last study, released in 1988, concluded there was no appreciable decrease in PCB concentrations in the period 1981 through 1986, and that PCB levels remained significantly above the maximum standards established by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect human health. The department announced that it did not foresee any change in the existing closure of the Striped Bass fishery (Ten Years of Monitoring PCB in Hudson River Striped Bass, by Sloan, Stang, and O'Connell, NYS DEC, April 1988). Clearly, the river is not cleaning itself up.

Can Bacteria Destroy PCBs?

According to GE, bacteria which occur naturally in the river's sediments have the ability to chemically break down PCBs into less toxic substances through a process known as "biodegradation". GE claims that biodegradation should be considered as an alternative to the state's proposed PCB dredging and argues for leaving the sediments undisturbed.

Each PCB molecule consists of chlorine atoms attached to a double carbon-hydrogen ring (a "biphenyl" ring). There are actually 209 different PCB "congeners", which differ in the number and location of chlorine atoms. It is generally believed that the more highly chlorinated PCBs are more toxic than PCBs with fewer chlorine atoms.

GE-sponsored experiments suggest that, under laboratory conditions, certain bacteria exposed to samples of the riverbed sediments containing high PCB concentrations will partially strip chlorine from the PCB molecules, thereby partially degrading them. The essential question is whether the breakdown of PCBs possible under laboratory conditions is happening, or can be made to happen, in the bottom of the Hudson river.

GE participated in hearings held in 1988-1989 by the NYS Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Board on the feasibility of the state's proposed PCB Clean-up Project. In the course of the hearings, GE strongly opposed the state's proposal, claiming that natural "biodegradation" was an effective alternative to the state's dredging plan. GE claimed that, not only was the dredging unnecessary, but that any disturbance of the riverbottom sediments would disrupt the natural breakdown process.

To support their claims, GE's scientist, John F. Brown, presented data from Hudson River sediments which show its PCB compounds to have a greater abundance of lower chlorinated forms than the original mixtures used at the GE factories in 1977 and earlier. (State of New York Industrial Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Board Hearings in the matter of Applications of the NYS DEC, to dredge PCBs from the Hudson River and to construct and operate a Hazardous Waste Management Facility in the town of Fort Edward, Washington County, NY, TRANSCRIPT OF PROCEEDINGS, 1987).

Flaws in Brown's argument became apparent under cross-examination by the state. It presumes that the original PCB composition in river sediment should be considered nearly identical to the composition of the commercial mixtures GE purchased in the 1960's. However, the original PCB mixtures were subject to extensive chemical and physical processes in the factories, in sewage treatment facilities and in transport before they ever reached the riverbed.

When cross-examined, another GE expert witness, Dr. James Tiedje, admitted his doubt as to the feasibility of GE's proposed biodegradation alternative and the consequent fate of the river: "There is some activity going on there. What we don't know is how significant that will eventually be in removing PCBs from the Hudson". (State of New York Industrial Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Board, TRANSCRIPT OF PROCEEDINGS, 1987).

GE's findings on partial decay of PCBs in the lab are promising in themselves, but their implications for the river are still speculative. The successful lab process requires treating concentrations of PCBs with chemicals and nutrients, then heating these mixtures to temperatures higher than the river ever gets. According to Brian Bush, a state research scientist in the Environmental Health and Toxicology Division of the State Health Department, though PCBs can be broken down successfully in the laboratory, natural decay of PCBs is "hardly detectable in the river". ("Hudson Said Too Cold for PCB Decay", Brian Nearing, Schenectady Gazette Reporter, February 23, 1989).

In New Bedford Harbor, another site of PCB contamination, federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies evaluating biodegradation found that although natural processes of biodegradation seem to be occurring at this Massachusetts site, these processes are so slow and uncertain that they cannot be considered a reasonable solution to the problem. EPA scientists questioned both the rate of breakdown and the toxicity of the final breakdown products. (EPA Draft Final, Hot Spot Feasibility Study, New Bedford Harbor, July 1989).

In fact, GE's latest proposal reveals their own lack of faith in their "biodegradation without interference" claims. Last year, they announced plans to begin a pilot project involving substantial "interference". Under GE's proposal, steel sediment containment cells with potential for temperature control, addition of nutrients and microbes and cell content mixing, will be placed in the river (letter from Proskauer Rose Goetz and Mendelsohn to Hon. Thomas Monroe, Regional Director, New York State DEC, September 5, 1990). What will this project prove, other than what GE lab experiments have already suggested and GE continues to deny, that saving the river requires substantial human interference?

What Can Be Done about PCBs in the Hudson?

There appears to be only one immediately effective solution to the problem of PCB contamination in the Hudson River, the removal of the contaminated sediments from the riverbed. It is estimated that over 90 percent of the PCBs in the water column of the lower Hudson originate from an area in the upper Hudson called the Thompson Island Pool. PCBs from toxic "hot spots" in this area constantly disperse downstream, causing continued contamination of the Hudson River Estuary.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently reconsidering a Superfund clean-up of Hudson River PCB contamination. Under "Superfund", a federal program to clean up hazardous waste, GE could be held responsible for its pollution of the Hudson River, and may have to pay clean-up costs. During their review process the EPA will choose one of several remediation alternatives, including "no-action".

Both DEC and the EPA have previously completed extensive evaluations of the feasibility of dredging contaminated "hot spots" as possible PCB remediation. In three separate reviews their final statements have indicated that dredging would provide substantial environmental benefits with either few or relatively minor adverse impacts.

There are several newly developing technologies, including chemical, biological or thermal treatment, that could be used to treat the PCBs. It is possible that enhanced biodegradation, in a containment facility, could be one of the treatment technologies used.

What can you do to help?

PCBs will not be removed from the Hudson River without two key things; political will and money. You can help by writing to the Environmental Protection Agency urging them to: Send Letters to:

Carol Browner
Administrator, USA EPA
410 Main St., N.W.
Rm. 1200, West Tower
Washington, D.C. 20460

Jeanne Fox
Regional Administrator
Region 2 EPA
26 Federal Plaza
New York, NY 10278

Source: Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc.
Brought to the Web by the Environmental Studies Program at Rensselear (10/94).
pesto@rpi.edu