Hudson River Sloop Clearwater's Public Comment
on EPA's Hudson River PCBs Superfund Reassessment and Proposed Remediation Plan. April 17, 2001.

[ Table Of Contents ] - [ Executive Summary ]
Main Document: [ Part 1 ] - [ Part 2 ] - [ Part 3 ]
[ Conclusion and Recommendations ]

Executive Summary

The following document is Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s formal submission to be entered in the public comment docket for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Hudson River PCBs Superfund Reassessment and Proposed Remediation Plan. Clearwater is a non-profit environmental education and advocacy organization founded in 1966 with the mission to “...defend and restore the Hudson, its tributaries, and related waterways.”

Clearwater recognizes that PCBs in the Upper Hudson sediments have long posed unacceptable risks for human health, the integrity of fish and wildlife populations, and the economies of river communities. These contaminated sediments continue to be the primary source for PCB-loading to downstream cities, towns, and river habitats. Clearwater thus supports a comprehensive river remediation plan that removes PCB-contaminated sediments from the Upper Hudson.

Further, Clearwater’s analysis of documents obtained under the New York State Freedom of Information Law indicates that General Electric’s PCB discharges were illegal from the very start, and at times were in violation of more than one statute.

Clearwater recommends an Upper Hudson remediation plan that maximizes PCB removal, minimizes PCB volatilization, includes sediment treatment and PCB destruction technologies, and minimizes impacts on human health, fish and wildlife, and critical habitats. Using EPA’s terminology, Clearwater’s recommended remedial standard is 3+/0/3+.

Clearwater is concerned about the continued threat of recontamination from the remnant deposits, and urges EPA to work collaboratively with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) to develop a plan for removing contaminated sediments from those sites. Further, Clearwater urges EPA to clarify the status of the river segment between Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, which currently does not seem to be covered in the Proposed Plan.

The human health effects from PCB exposure have been well documented. PCBs are probable carcinogens, and have developmental effects including lowered IQ; they also cause immune system depression, serve as endocrine disruptors, and cause acute toxic effects. PCBs bioaccumulate, concentrating in the fatty tissues of organisms, with animals at the top of the food chain being most vulnerable. PCBs readily pass from mother to child through breast milk. Pregnant women and children are most at risk from PCB exposure, but even the children of women exposed to PCBs before pregnancy can be affected.

PCBs have been shown to volatilize from the river itself and from exposed mud flats. In this way they can enter the atmosphere and be redeposited many hundreds of miles from their source, contributing significantly to the global load of PCBs in the environment. Inhalation of PCBs likely serves as another avenue of exposure, especially to residents living near the most contaminated areas. Special care will have to be taken during the remediation to protect workers and minimize volatilization from dredged spoils.

Thousands of people in the estuarine Hudson eat the fish they catch for subsistence. Many of these people willingly risk PCB exposure, but most are unaware of the risks for a variety of reasons. Those exposed are very often from disadvantaged communities where Hudson River fish can offer a steady supply of inexpensive meals. Despite New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) health advisories warning against the consumption of Hudson River fish, it is clear that contaminated fish are still being eaten. Awareness of the advisories is very limited, especially by lower income and linguistic minority groups in urban centers along the Lower Hudson River. Currently, the advisories warn that women of childbearing years and children under fifteen should eat no fish from the river.

Clearwater believes that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) consumption threshold of 2 ppm of PCBs in fish is unacceptably high, especially for subsistence anglers who may eat at least one Hudson River fish meal per week. Removal of PCBs from river sediment is the only method that has the potential to lower PCB levels in fish to the EPA goal of 0.05 ppm in our lifetimes. Without remediation, Upper Hudson fish will not be edible for over 67 years. With Clearwater’s recommended level of remediation, monthly or weekly fish meal consumption may become safely possible in the estuarine Hudson only a few years after remediation is complete, sparing one or more human generations exposure to this persistent toxin.

The effects of PCBs on wildlife are well documented. Behavioral abnormalities, lower reproduction rates, and reduced hatchling success have been seen in a variety of bird species exposed to PCBs, including black-crowned night herons, bald eagles, and cormorants. Upper Hudson tree swallows showed a significant positive correlation between their level of PCB exposure and the loss of ability of individual swallows to build nests. PCBs have also been shown to suppress the immune system in American kestrels. Reproductive failure and immunosuppression in mammals, particularly fish-eating species (such as mink), has also been exhibited. A recent report from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has shown greatly elevated PCB levels in predators living near the river.

Commercial fishing for striped bass, eel, and other marketable species has been shut down since the mid-seventies causing not only job losses, but the lost legacy of a traditional livelihood which is a defining feature of the Hudson’s cultural heritage. Despite renewed interest in reopening commercial striped bass fishing on the Lower Hudson, PCB levels in Lower Hudson fish must be reduced significantly before the limited commercial sale of striped bass from the Hudson River resumes. The closure of the commercial fishery has led to a regulatory structure that favors recreational fishers, and it now appears that commercial fishing may never return. This condition would never have existed had commercial fishing been able to continue uninterrupted.

Despite advisories, even recreational anglers frequently consume what they catch from the Lower Hudson, so lowering PCB levels in fish to the 0.05 ppm level would greatly improve the safety of fish consumption and help remove the stigma associated with Hudson River fish, thus improving tourism and its associated economy. A post-remediated Hudson would also offer higher property values and improved navigation. The remediation itself has the potential to create thousands of jobs for the local economy, and Clearwater urges EPA to specify the maximum level of hiring local workers for the remediation process. Clearwater recommends increased public outreach about fish consumption before, during, and after remediation throughout the Hudson Valley.

Clearwater recommends using hydraulic dredging as the default value, and that dredged sediments be contained at all steps in the process, minimizing volatilization. Innovative dredge technologies should be explored. Clearwater recommends silt curtains be used to minimize resuspension, that dredging be restricted to the low river flow months of summer and fall, and that an extensive air and water monitoring program be implemented. Diesel fuel emissions from trains or trucks could be significantly reduced by using soy-based biofuels.

Clearwater strongly urges that treatment technologies be employed on some of the most-contaminated dredged sediments, and that priority be given to those technologies capable of completely destroying PCBs. Proper precautions should be taken to minimize worker exposure to sediments and volatilized PCBs.

Continued public participation after the ROD is announced is critical. A Hudson River PCB Remediation Advisory Committee of all major stakeholders should be created, and we strongly support the establishment of grants programs for outreach, education and environmental justice. Ongoing public information meetings in Ft. Edward, Albany, the Mid-Hudson, and New York City should be scheduled.

Clearwater recommends that all reasonable steps be taken to minimize the negative impacts of remediation on host communities. These steps include noise control, limited nighttime light pollution, the use of soydiesel fuel in all engines, minimization of outdoor material handling, and possible containerization of dredged materials.

A comprehensive remediation is the Hudson’s best hope for ecological recovery and economic revival. Clearwater believes that this is our last, best chance to remove a significant source of these toxic chemicals from not just the Hudson, but the entire global ecosystem. Without remediation, Hudson River PCBs will continue to slowly disperse and remain available to contaminate people and wildlife for many generations to come.

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© 2001 Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc.