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Voices

The Fight Is On for a Healthy Hudson River

Alarm bells are ringing as local activists launch effort to protect the birthplace of America's environmental movement.

by Nick Chedli Carter
Jul 28 2017, 4:30pm

Images via Pexels and Wikimedia Commons.

PCB is not an acronym typically associated with a clean and a healthy ecosystem. Yet because of mass dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (think nasty chemicals) decades ago by energy giant General Electric, PCBs are routinely found throughout New York's Hudson Valley in wildlife, water sediment, and people. Scientists, activists and concerned citizens see cleanup of PCBs as a necessary protection for the health and economic livelihood of the area, and even go as far as to say that women of childbearing age and children should eat no fish at all from the river.

The good news is that back in 2009, GE began the first phase of clean-up of PCBs, including dredging aimed at removing close to 10 percent of the chemicals. And in December of 2010, GE agreed to enter Phase 2 of the effort. The hubbub now is a recently released Environmental Protection Agency report, the Second Five Year Review, that has conservation activists concerned because they think it paints an overly optimistic picture of the status of the Hudson and takes GE off the hook for continued cleanup.

The process of regulating natural resources is almost always cumbersome, divisive and stirs up strong feelings from various business, advocacy and individual stakeholders. In this particular situation, there is a five year review required by the federal Superfund law to evaluate how cleanup is going, specifically whether it is protective of human health and the environment. When it comes to advocacy, if you're not at the table you shouldn't expect to get your desired outcome in a contentious situation and that is certainly the case when it comes to the future of the Hudson River.

The current situation affects anybody anywhere from Fort Edward to the Battery. It affects 190 miles of the Hudson River.

To get a better handle on the local organizing efforts around the future of the Hudson, VICE Impact caught up by phone with Richard Webster, legal counsel to the advocacy group Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Hudson River and clean drinking water for New York City and Hudson Valley residents. Fresh from a town meeting in Saratoga, Richard shares his perspective and how concerned citizens can get more engaged, and why the next month is so important for the future of the Hudson River.

Where are we at in the process of cleaning up the Hudson River?

The EPA is now reviewing whether the dredging made the difference they expected in terms of lowering the PCB level in the river. We're in what's called a five year review process, to the remedy -- what we call a record-of-decision. It's been fifteen years now from the record-decision in 2002.

The EPA put out a draft of the five year review on June 1st and we have until September 1st to put comments in on that five year review. As part of the comment process, the EPA so far held two public meetings. One was in Poughkeepsie and the next one was in Saratoga, and so we have reached those public meetings and we have rallied our forces to attend those meetings to really question and tell the EPA that we think the five year review is covering up a lot of things and is not acknowledging the most serious problems and threats.


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What is latest from General Electric on this?

At the moment, GE is laying very low and allowing the EPA basically to take the heat for them.

Do you think the EPA leadership changes in Washington have a particular impact on the issue?

The five year review process is already well under way from the Obama Administration, and the EPA has taken the view that everything is on track. The change in administrations made a big difference yet.

What is the harm of these PCBs? They don't sound attractive, but how does it translate into animal, plant and human health?

PCBs are chlorinated organic compounds. They are designed to not to break down in the environment. As a result of that property they will biomagnify up the food chain. That means that organisms absorb the PCBs, then they get eaten by other organisms like little fish, and then those little fish will get eaten by bigger fish all the way up the food chain. These PCBs concentrate in the fatty tissues of an animal and cause primary health defects in reproduction. They disrupt the reproduction of both the humans and animals, and are suspected of causing cancer in humans.

PCBs are not a good look. (Photo via Leah Rae)

Which communities and physical areas are most at risk?

The current situation affects anybody anywhere from Fort Edward to the Battery. It affects 190 miles of the Hudson River.

We have been pushing very hard for a New York City meeting and the EPA are saying at the moment they are carefully considering our plan. We have enlisted the help of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand in that effort, then they wrote letters to the EPA saying that they think there should be a meeting in New York City.

Local Hudson River protest. (Photo via Leah Rae)

What can individuals can do? What's the deal with the public comment process?

The comment period is open until September 1, so we are encouraging people to make comments on their own. We will be submitting more detailed comments to the EPA as well, but we want individuals to submit their own comments saying why they care about the river, how much they want to see the river to be fishable and to ensure good ecological quality.

We are planning a number of events where people can come out and get together with neighbors to show visibly that there is a huge number of people up and down that river that really care about this issue. Other things people can do is write letters to their local newspaper, post online, and look for a municipal resolution that people can ask their local municipality to adopt.

What is next for you in this effort?

Next for us is to get the August meetings organized. At the same time we are working very hard with our expert consultants analyzing the data sets that the EPA has put out. They put out a 1000 page report and only gave us 90 days to comment, so obviously we have a lot of work to do to understand in detail what they are saying -- or importantly what they are not saying.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Want to learn and do more around the future of the Hudson River? Check out this video from local filmmakers on the history of PCBs in the Hudson.

And if you're interested in sharing your concerns with the EPA you can check out the work of Riverkeeper now.