Return our river to its previous purity

— Library of Congress, Scene on the Upper Hudson, 1891

Water is essential to life.

Pure water is essential to healthy life — both human and environmental.

On Feb. 15, our senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, wrote a letter to the federal Environmental Protection Agency raising concerns about the supposed clean-up of the Hudson River. 

Over three decades, from 1947 to 1977, General Electric dumped more than a million pounds of carcinogens — polychlorinated biphenyls known as PCBs — into the river. PCBs have also been linked to asthma, diabetes, and neurological problems.

But more than humans are damaged. As forever chemicals, PCBs do not easily break down but rather cycle from water to air to soil. Microorganisms in the environment dismantle PCBs not into harmless byproducts but into smaller labile PCB molecules.

In the 1980s, a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River was appropriately designated a Superfund site, one of the largest in the United States. And, in 2006, the EPA required General Electric to clean a 40-mile section of that site, from Troy to Fort Edward.

But we, like Gillibrand, have doubts about the success of the clean-up process.

In 2001, we lambasted GE’s preposterous proposition that the river would clean itself, a campaign on which the company spent millions of dollars.

We wrote on this page about the half-hour propaganda piece that GE aired on several television networks, alleging that dredging would hurt communities by the river, closing with this line: “We should be looking at this river and what’s right for the people living along this river.”

We are all part of the same ecosystem — a natural phenomenon — and we are all part of the same society — a human creation. 

It’s true that those living near a clean-up site are most likely to have their lives disrupted, we wrote 23 years ago, but current convenience shouldn’t supersede long-term preservation of the natural order and of human health.

And, in the long run, communities along the river have the most to gain from a clean Hudson and the most to lose from a contaminated river.

“The evidence that PCBs are a health risk is indisputable,” David Carpenter, M.D., a professor of environmental health and toxicology at the University at Albany, told us at the time. Five of six studies concluded that people exposed to PCBs showed an increased incidence of cancer, he said; the sixth study was funded by GE.

While the clean-up was necessary, it wasn’t done well enough.

“I believe it is clear that the selected remedy has not achieved the goals of the 2002 Record of Decision (ROD) and that additional remedial action must be taken to bring the Hudson River back to full health,” writes Gillibrand in her letter as the release of the third five-year EPA review approaches.

“While it is true that a considerable amount of PCB-contaminated sediment was removed through the dredging, the data indicates that a significant mass of bioavailable PCBs remains in the sediments of the Upper Hudson River,” the letter goes on. “This has resulted in an unacceptably slow post-dredging natural recovery in both fish and sediments.”

Gillibrand goes on to note that targets established in 2002 have not been met so, consequently, risks for ecological and human health remain in ranges outside the levels deemed acceptable by the EPA.

Without further active remediation, Gillibrand writes, PCB concentrations will remain above the levels called for in the 2002 Record of Decision for generations to come.

Current strategies like fish-consumption advisories, she accurately notes, unjustly place the burden of protectiveness on low-income and minority populations, which are most likely to subsist on Hudson River fish.

A report released late last year jointly by the Hudson Fishermen’s Association, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Hudson Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, and the Sierra Club-Atlantic Chapter came to that very conclusion.

The coalition used technical experts to conduct an independent analysis of the remedy’s protectiveness and found that the dredging has missed targets deemed necessary to protect human and ecological health.

Neither fish nor sediment are recovering at the rates needed to achieve key goals laid out in the 2002 Record of Decision.

In its two earlier five-year reviews, the EPA ignored the warning signs the data trends were showing, the report says.

“Even as GE was completing its six-year dredging project in 2015, analysis of project data warned that a significant amount of contaminated sediment would remain in the Hudson River at levels that likely would not allow for ‘unlimited use and unrestricted exposure after cleanup,’” the report says. “At this point, the data are clear: The remedy is ‘not protective of human health and the environment.’”

The complex nature of PCBs ensures GE’s toxic waste will continue to travel throughout the Hudson River ecosystem, resisting degradation, biomagnifying in food chains, and bioaccumulating in human and animal tissue, the report says.

“Stalled waterfront economic development planning, warnings against fish consumption, and ongoing damage to the unique ecosystem of the Hudson River are just a few of the limitations PCB pollution has forced on people living along the river for decades,” the report concludes. “Without additional actions, the health risks and generational impacts of living, working, and playing within a heavily polluted Superfund site along a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River will exist for the foreseeable future.”

Earlier this month, Gillibrand gathered with a host of environmentalists and government representatives in Albany to demand that the EPA take further action to see that the Hudson is cleaned. 

Albany’s mayor, Kathy Sheehan, pointed out that the city, with help from the state, will soon open a $50 million sewer overflow filtration system to cut the floatables that flow to the Hudson during heavy rains — an increasing problem with climate change. While such a system is needed and undertaking it is admirable, the underlying problem of carcinogens remains.

For years on this page we called for the cleanup of pollutants that directly affected Guilderland’s drinking water. The Army ran a depot from 1941 to 1961 next to the Black Creek, which feeds the Watervliet Reservoir, Guilderland’s major source of drinking water.

Indeed, the Army diverted the Black Creek into two halves and sent waste into the creek or buried it nearby. We detailed each area of concern and the harmful chemicals buried there. The Army didn’t know precisely what it had buried or where — and the funds for finding out and cleaning it up were limited.

Our senator in 2002, Hillary Clinton, told us at the time, “We are woefully underfunded.” She lamented that, under the George W. Bush administration, standards on contaminants permitted in water were being rolled back.

When we asked how to move forward on the issue, Clinton answered, “Hopefully, we’ll elect more Democrats.”

We wrote on this page then and we still believe now, even more fervently, clean water should not be a partisan issue. People of all parties, and those who are enrolled in no party, should agree on this.

“Only by rousing the public will we get the support we need,” Clinton said in 2002. She was right about that. Local citizens were part of a committee that assiduously tracked the Army Depot pollutants and worked with government representatives to eventually get the needed funding.

Nearly a quarter century later, the need is even greater. But, unlike with the Depot toxins in the Black Creek, for which the U.S. Army was responsible, and eventually cleaned up, the PCBs in the Hudson are there because of a private company, which profited from its improper disposal of toxic waste.

General Electric should pay for cleaning up the mess it made.

The company must be held responsible by our government through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Our current senator, Gillibrand, concluded her Feb. 15 letter to the EPA by correctly noting that the agency would not be showing weakness or failure by determining the remedy has not protected public and environmental health.

“Rather,” Gillibrand writes, “it would represent an important affirmation that the Superfund law and process work, while further demonstrating and emphasizing the administration’s leadership and EPA’s fundamental commitment to holding polluters accountable and protecting public health and the environment.”

We hope to once again arouse the public to insist that our government does its job to protect the health of humans and the environment.

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