PCB Cleanup Update

Dredging on Hudson River 2012

A June 4, 2020, article in Politico reported that levels of PCB toxins in Hudson River fish have not changed significantly over the last 2 years. This raises even more doubts about the effectiveness of the Superfund cleanup conducted by General Electric to remove these cancer-causing chemicals it dumped in the Hudson River for most of the mid-20th century.

Conservation groups, including Scenic Hudson, say this lack of improvement fortifies their argument that the cleanup will not meet the goal mandated by the U.S. Superfund Law—to be “protective of human health and the environment”—without conducting more dredging at PCB “hotspots” just downriver from Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, where the pollution originated. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the cleanup, insists it’s still too early to gauge the success of the 6 years of dredging GE conducted between 2009 and 2015. Compelling GE to resume dredging will be nearly impossible unless New York State prevails in its ongoing lawsuit against the EPA. The suit contends the agency issued GE a “certificate of completion” for the project despite scientific evidence that it had failed to reach health benchmarks.

No Cleanup Yet in Lower Hudson

While a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson remains polluted, making it one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, data indicate that fish in the 140 miles of the river below the Troy Dam have not experienced even the modest (but below-expectation) drop in contamination levels experienced upriver—hence the article’s title, “Tale of 2 rivers.”

“EPA is dragging their feet. They know they have the authority to order a remedial investigation,” said Scenic Hudson’s Althea Mullarkey in an interview. “They’re just choosing not to.”

Fishing at Long Dock Park, Beacon, NY
Fishing at Long Dock Park, Beacon, NY (Photo: John Halpern)

For the last 3 years, the EPA has insisted it’s working on a plan to remove this pollution, which reaches all the way to New York Harbor. While the EPA keeps “dragging their feet,” as Scenic Hudson Public Policy and Special Projects Analyst Althea Mullarkey is quoted in the article, families who subsist on tainted fish despite health warnings and communities whose waterfront redevelopment plans have been stalled by the contamination continue to wait. So do members of low-income and minority communities along the lower Hudson who fought hard for a PCB cleanup and have received no benefits to date.

Second Superfund Phase Also Moving Slowly

Since 1998, evaluating another aspect of GE’s cleanup commitment—the amount of money the company will be required to pay to restore damaged habitats and offset lost recreational opportunities—has been ongoing. Trustees overseeing this Natural Resource Damages Assessment include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. While the trustees have released information about some of the damages they’re investigating, they have issued no deadline for completing their assessment. As Ms. Mullarkey says in the article, “glaciers are speedier.”

Scenic Hudson has been leading the campaign for a comprehensive PCB cleanup for more than 40 years. A consultant hired by the organization to complete a damages assessment is expected to release its report next year.

Dredging on Hudson River 2012 (Photo: Peretz Partensky on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Rachel Carson & the Clearwater

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, is considered the bible of the modern environmental movement. Its compelling and science-based account of the horrors inflicted on Earth’s entire ecosystem by the pesticide DDT galvanized people to take a stand against this poison, leading to its prohibition in 1972.  

Carson (1907-1964) remains a heroine of environmentalists around the globe, but did she have a Hudson Valley connection? Yes. You could say she’s responsible for the sloop Clearwater. In a 1998 radio interview, Clearwater godfather and folksinger Pete Seeger, an environmental icon himself, he was asked how he came up with the idea for the boat:

It was Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. I read it in The New Yorker, in installments. Up to then, I’d thought the main job to do is help the meek inherit the Earth. And I still, that’s a job that’s got to be done. But I realized if we didn’t do something soon, what the meek would inherit would be a pretty poisonous place to live.

And so I made almost a 180-degree turn, started reading books like The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, or The Poverty of Power by Barry Commoner. I’m a readaholic. And I was reading a book about the sailboats that sailed here, oh, all during the 19th century. Alexander Hamilton wrote one of the Federalist Papers on his way to Poughkeepsie in a sloop, where they were arguing whether or not to sign the Constitution idea and agree to it.

Well, I write a letter to my friend: wouldn’t it be great to build a replica of one of these? Probably cost $100,000. Nobody we know has that money, but if we got 1,000 people together we could all chip in. Maybe we could hire a skilled captain to see it’s run safely and the rest of us could volunteer.

And three years later [1968] the sloop Clearwater was built up in Maine, and I helped sail it down with Don McLean and a batch of other singers. And now it takes school kids out. It’s not a rich man’s cruise boat. Two or three times a day it takes groups of 50 school kids out, teaches them what makes rivers dirty and what’s got to be done to clean them up. Of course, people say what can a sailboat do? It can’t do much except bring people together. But when people come together, that’s when miracles happen, right?

Postscript: In 1970, Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed to Washington, D.C., to hold a forum on the need for Congress to pass a Clean Water Act. Seeger not only presented the legislators with a petition bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures, but delivered an impromptu concert. Although it took two more years for the act to become law, Seeger’s appearance, courtesy of the boat inspired by Rachel Carson, is considered a “watershed” moment leading to its passage.

Stop Danskammer Now

While developers of the proposed new gas-fired Danskammer power plant in Newburgh insist in public that it will be much “cleaner” than the current facility, their application to the state Siting Board reveals the truth — the plant’s more frequent combustion of fossil fuels will vastly increase emissions that pollute the air with climate-warming carbon and chemicals directly linked to asthma.

Still, most state legislators have stayed silent on the project, or voiced support for it, despite wisely adopting one of the country’s most ambitious climate targets — achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. Now that the state Siting Board is reviewing the application, it’s time for our elected officials in Albany to speak out and join our campaign to block this white elephant.

We urge you to contact your Senator and Assembly member and ask them to lend their support to stopping this ill-conceived plan by (1) publicly expressing their concerns about it and (2) contacting the Siting Board and asking them to pull the plug on the project.

The Legislature has set New York on a smart and sensible course for combatting climate change. The Danskammer plant presents a roadblock in reaching their visionary goals and creating a healthy environment for our children and grandchildren. We need their help to put the brakes on it now.

Danskammer Power Plant

Shipshape Energy


Shipping, which transports 90 percent of the world’s globally traded goods, accounts for 3% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. This may not seem like much until you calculate that it amounts to more than 1.5 billion metric tons. (A full-grown elephant weighs about 1 metric ton.)

In other words, curbing ship emissions is essential in confronting the climate crisis. Fortunately, shipping companies seem to be getting on board. The International Maritime Organization has agreed to cut carbon emissions from global shipping by 50% by 2050 compared with 2008 levels — a good first step, but not enough to reach goals that will make a big difference. Going further, Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipper, is committed to making its fleet completely carbon-neutral by 2030, and is urging others to follow its lead. 

How do you transition away from diesel fuel? Shipbuilders have begun exploring ingenious solutions. They include rotors that provide wind power (ships currently fitted with these use up to 20% less diesel fuel), aerodynamic designs that turn a ship into a giant sail, powering vessels with hydrogen produced from seawater and covering decks with solar panels. Successful designs must provide enough power to propel these gigantic vessels through the water without taking up space needed for cargo.

Re-energizing the world’s cargo fleets will be expensive, but the time has come, says Diane Gilpin, CEO of the Smart Green Shipping Alliance. “I don’t think there’s any argument any longer about the need to do it. There is anxiety about which is the most appropriate way, because nobody wants to make a mistake. But you have to take a risk.”