Supersized: The Longest Superfund Site (the Hudson River) Thanks to One of The Largest Companies in the World (General Electric)

On Day 76, Superfund365 highlighted the Hudson River. The Hudson River!? Well, that's not a Superfund site, you might think. But actually 200 miles of it is, from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City.

To learn more, I talked with the folks at Riverkeeper and Clearwater, two not-for-profit organizations advocating for a cleaner Hudson River. Just how did 200 miles of a river become the longest Superfund site in the US? First, we have to turn our attention to General Electric (GE). Starting in 1947, GE discharged between 209,000 and 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river from two capacitor manufacturing plants located in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York. PCBs neither burn nor conduct electricity and made possible a whole new generation of profitable electrical products, enabling GE to amass a fortune. For years, a toxic mix containing PCBs along with trichloroethylene (TCE) ran through pipes from the GE factories directly into the Hudson River. Still today, contaminants leak from the bedrock beneath G.E.'s Hudson Falls plant and continue to contaminate the Hudson.

For a concise history of the Hudson River PCB site, visit Clearwater's "Anatomy of a Toxic Spill: The Hudson River PCB Story" slideshow. Below are excerpts from my conversation with Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Director of Clearwater, followed by some thoughts from John Waldman, Professor of Biology at Queens College and author of "Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor."  

MJG: I am now really busy working on the Indian Point case. The last time I was this busy and focused was when I was working on the Hudson PCB case -- it's really a bit of déjà vu.

BS: Thank you Manna for taking time from your hectic schedule to speak about the Hudson River PCB site. Can you talk a bit about Clearwater and what it is you do?

MJG: Clearwater is a grassroots, not-for-profit environmental organization. Our mission focuses on the protection of the ecology of the Hudson River and the quality of life of people living in the Hudson River watershed. We do it by advocacy, education and celebration. My job focuses on hard core advocacy with adults, which involves education, outreach, policy and litigation.

The PCB case has been one of Clearwater's most long-standing advocacy issues. You may not know that Clearwater was extremely instrumental in getting the Clean Water Act passed. The organization was founded by the musician, Pete Seeger, in the 1960s. One of the first things they did was sail up and down the Hudson river and educate people about the pollution. It was like a giant mess of sewage. You could tell what color General Motors was painting their cars that day because  the effluent went untreated right into the river. Seeger shared his vision of a clean river and people were inspired. And he sailed right down to Washington, DC, and held an impromptu concert in the halls of congress. And right afterwards the Clean Water Act was passed. [To this day, Clearwater maintains a sailboat to serve as a movable classroom, laboratory, stage, and forum.]

I went to one of the early fund raiser's in Peekskill, NY, and I remember when the boat was sailing up and down the river. But I did not join until 15 years ago and then I joined the board 10 years ago and took this job about 7 years ago.

Before that I was a nurse for about 26 years and some of that time overlapped with my career as a recycling coordinator for my county. I was at one of the local hospitals for 22 years and critical care was my specialty. It occurred to me that a lot of the illnesses we were seeing were environmentally caused and it was really our responsibility to try to prevent them. I went from being a nurse to being an earth nurse.

Clearwater was formed in 1966 and we were concerned about the PCB issue from the time we formed. The PCB issue went through several phases. There was an early determination by the EPA that you could more harm them good by dredging the PCBs. This was called the "No Action" phase.

Later, one of my predecessors at Clearwater, Bridget Barclay, did a landmark survey called the Hudson River Angler Survey. She determined that in spite of the health advisory [prohibiting fishing in the Hudson River], people were catching and eating the fish, sharing them with their families, sharing them with their neighbors. It was not until 1993 when Bridget did this study that there was evidence fairly conclusively that people were in fact eating Hudson River fish. They were eating the fish either because they were low income and needed the protein or because it was part of their culture or they were plainly ignoring the health advisory even if they knew about it. Bridget's study was repeated by NY State Department of Health. Those two angler studies were a tipping point in this PCB case because at the time people thought that the main route of exposure for humans for PCBs was fish consumption. And the way that they were treating it prior to the reassessment was telling people to catch and release. They put advisories in fishing licenses. But some people fish without licenses and some people couldn't even read the advisory and some people read but ignored the warning. And very few were doing catch and release.

So with that documentation they could no longer say there is no direct connection between PCB and humans. That is when they started to move toward remediation and by 2001 the EPA announced that GE [the primary responsible party] would have to cleanup the Hudson. The formal record of decision was released in February 2002. And that is when we at Clearwater got really, really busy. We went into researching everything we could find on the impact of Hudson River PCBs. We wrote a very extensive document of public record comment that is now published on the website. We pushed for the cleanup and pushed for a very safe cleanup.

BS: I read on the Clearwater website that "General Electric itself is a principal reason why the river has not been cleaned up. With a deliberate written strategy, shown here, G.E. has engaged in a concerted delaying action that has succeeded in holding off a river cleanup for more than 20 years." How did they do this?

MJG: In the beginning GE strongly influenced EPA for the "No Action" determination. Then during the reassessment, they hired the best legal minds and scientists (well, we would call it junk science) to disprove the toxicity of PCBs. They did a massive public relations campaign. We tracked every article and campaign and I have several cartons full of this stuff. They would pay for centerfolds in the newspaper saying PCBs are safe and the river is cleaning itself up. It was a massive disinformation campaign. Their budget for PR and legal fees was about $100 million to prevent having to do what is going to turn out to be about a $600 million cleanup.

I think there are two reasons they did this. GE is responsible for many other Superfund sites. [According to the Center for Public Integrity, GE's Superfund sites totals 116.] They wanted to try to weaken EPA's case and hold off a remediation decisions because they have a lot of other sites too. I think the other reason was the personality of Jack Welch (aka Neutron Jack). He was very invested. When EPA came out with a "No Action" decision, Jack Welch thought the problem was solved. He was not somebody to say "OK we have more science now, we realize how serious it is, we better cooperate." He was not going to give in and put GE in this extremely adversarial role.

The new CEO of GE, Jeffry Immelt, has this image of eco-imagination and GE is really a cool green company. They have not rolled over, but GE is starting to do the construction for cleanup. Once GE puts its mind to doing something, then that's their specialty. They know how to engineer these projects, they know about technology.  What they don't know about, and are learning a hard lesson, is ethics. But they do seem to be doing an amazing job-- they have not started cleanup yet -- but they have built the facilities and the progress they are making is pretty amazing.

In the court of public opinion, however, they lost. We [Clearwater] taught people how the river was not cleaning itself up, how dangerous PCBs are. Nobody had heard of bioaccumulation and now it's a household word. We did a huge amount of work. That case received more public comments then any other case I know of. This was before the internet and we were doing this door-to-door. On the ground we countered a $100 million misinformation campaign!

BS: I hear that GE is suing the EPA, stating it is unconstitutional for the agency to enforce cleanup and are hoping that the courts say that EPA does not have that authority to do this.

MJG: Yes, they want to take it to the Supreme Court. They are exhausting every possible route to get out of this. GE wants the precedence to go in favor of leniency for responsible parties. We believe it is not a matter of leniency, but about cleaning up the environment. For a company that earns $14 billion in net profits a year for them to pay about half a billion over the course of 6 to 10 years is really negligible. And [the lawsuit] of course contradicts Jeff Immelt's eco-imagination -- instead they could be modeling how to be a good corporate citizen.

BS: Is Clearwater still active in the PCB Hudson River case?

MJG: We have been actively involved continuously as part of the Community Advisory Group. We go to Saratoga or Fort Edward almost monthly and have been for 5 years. We are trying to be sure that the cleanup is as rigorous as it needs to be and done carefully to prevent impact. In 2004, we published a definitive paper on the volitalization of PCBs,  helping everyone understand that it's not just about if you eat fish or not, but it's about what we breathe and we have no choice about that. Through the cleanup we cannot allow PCBs to be distributed into the air. We will be there through the design phase. We will be there for GE to report to during cleanup and also right there through the post-remediation monitoring. We will be involved for another 20 years, at least. It's continuous and we are committed to restoring the river as close as possible to its original state.

BS: Thank you Manna!

And now, I switch to John Waldman, Professor of Biology at Queens College and author of "Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor."

BS: GE started dumping PCBs in the Hudson in 1947. Can you briefly explain the Hudson River pre-1947 and compare it to its current condition.

JW: The Hudson River in the 1940's was a very different place. Dilution was still the answer to pollution and the river was lined with industry that dumped contaminants in it, both legally and illegally.  Sewage treatment was far less complete and human wastes robbed the river of oxygen at times while also overfertilizing it.  Nonetheless, there was a thriving commercial fishery for anadromous fishes that spent most of their time in cleaner marine waters.  These included for American shad, Atlantic sturgeon, and striped bass--in the forties there even where shad camps right across the river from Manhattan. During this time, rainbow smelt also ran up Hudson River tributaries where they were dipnetted in large numbers.  But very few people sportfished on the river or used it for other recreational purposes.

Today the Hudson is home to some of the fiercest and most able environmentalists on Earth.  Their efforts have helped bring point-source pollution to negligible levels.  Many more people now sail and kayak on the Hudson, and some even swim at its cleaner locations.  But the legacy of PCB contamination has prevented a robust use of the river's resources.  Sportfishing is now huge on the Hudson River, but few fish are kept for consumption.  Meanwhile the river's rich commercial fishing industry has withered to a few diehard practitioners who fish more for tradition's sake than monetary reward. Only shad and blue crab are legally harvestable for sale and it is now difficult to obtain enough shad to sustain the spring "shad bakes" that river communities used to herald the arrival of spring.  

BS: PCB dumping is not the only problem with the Hudson. What are some others?

JW: The Hudson flows through a dense population corridor and, as a result, has many of the problems associated with hosting people in large numbers.  Non-point source pollution and the accumulations in the sediments of other contaminants beyond PCBs limit edibility of its fishes.  Non-native species such as zebra mussels, water chestnut, Asian shore crab, and even fish such as carp and largemouth bass have changed its ecology, mostly for the worse.  The many dams on its tributaries block migrations of anadromous fishes and prevent normal movements of resident species. Waterfront and broader Hudson Valley development alters habitat in the watershed and adds to the stresses caused by human population.  In New York City, rain runoff from the streets is directed to sewage treatment plants where it overwhelms their capacities, causing a mix of runoff and raw sewage to flow to the river in "combined sewer overflows."  The effects of warming are beginning to be noticed in the system, most dramatically in the loss of rainbow smelt from the Hudson.  This cold water species, which probably ran in at least the tens-to-hundreds of thousands of individuals, has not been seen since the late 1990s and warming is the likely cause.  Many more warming-related changes will be seen over the remainder of the century.

BS: What are some remediation efforts that have been effective and what is left to be done?

JW: The Clean Water Act of 1972 caused the most dramatic improvements to the Hudson River watershed by raising water quality standards and by funding improvements to sewage treatment facilities.  The general improvements to the water quality of the system have allowed a new focus on habitat improvement and restoration.  Some small marshes have been restored and there is now intense interest in bringing back oyster reefs--oysters once being a keystone species in the estuary. Oyster reefs would help trap nutrients and provide crucial nursery habitat for fish and invertebrates. Fish passage restoraton also is important.  Many dams on Hudson River tributaries serve little or no useful purpose--persisting through inertia--but cause grave ecological harm.  These dams should be removed or, at minimum, fitted with fish ladders to allow migratory fish to reach unused spawning and nursery habitat.

BS: Is it possible to return the river back to its former glory and why is it important to do this (or is it)?

JW: Yes, but in a new context. The river will never look like what it did in 1609 when Henry Hudson explored it.  But glory is still possible in a new form, as an ecologically functional river that is clean and productive, just different in its physical and biological makeup from 400 years ago.  What happened to this river borders on the tragic.  But it's shown a remarkable resilience that needs to be nurtured.  Help it along and it will provide food, recreation, and maybe even inspiration.  We're more than halfway there.

BS: Thanks John and I look forward to learning more from "Heartbeats in the Muck."

Brooke Singer
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Supersized: The Longest Superfund Site (the Hudson River) Thanks to One of The Largest Companies in the World (General Electric)