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The Hudson River PCB Story

Fact Sheet 3
Frequently Asked Questions about PCBs

Q.  What are PCB's?

A.  PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a group of synthetic oil-like
chemicals of the organochlorine family.  Until their toxic nature was
recognized and their use was banned in the 1970's, they were widely used
as insulation in electrical equipment, particularly transformers.
Reputable chemists have since concluded that "it was probably a
'mistake' ever to make or use PCBs".

Q.  Why are they dangerous?

A.  They are serious poisons which have been shown to cause damage to
the reproductive, neurological and immune systems of wildlife and humans
and are known to cause cancer.  Specifically, because PCBs in the body
mimic estrogen, women of child-bearing age and their infants are
particularly susceptible to a variety of development and reproductive
disorders.  A National Academy of Sciences committee has stated that
"PCBs pose the largest potential carcinogenic risk of any environmental
contaminant for which measurements exist."

Q.  Where are they?

A.  There are numerous known contaminated sites around the U. S. Among
the most dangerous of these, and of particular concern to residents of
the Hudson Valley, are the forty "hot spots" in the Hudson River
resulting from the dumping and leakage from General Electric plants at
Fort Edward and Hudson Falls.  There are PCBs in Hudson River water,
biota, and sediment from Hudson Falls to New York City -- 200 miles that
comprise the nation's largest Superfund site.

Q. How did PCB's get into the water?

A.  During the period when they were used, General Electric legally
dumped some 1.5 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, and
unknowingly saturated the bedrock beneath both sites with at least that
much again.  Pure PCBs are oozing out of the bedrock to this day,
constantly recontaminating the river.

Q.  Isn't this just a local problem?

A.  No.  Once bottom-dwelling organisms absorb the material it is passed
along up the food chain.  Insoluble in water, PCBs are not readily
excreted and remain, in ever-increasing concentrations, lodged in the
fatty body tissues of fish as they grow.  As one consequence, a
once-thriving commercial fishing industry in the Hudson Valley, earning
about $40 million annually, is now all but dead.  Almost all of the
river-dwelling fish are migratory, and the effects are such that the New
York State Department of Health has issued an advisory telling people to
severely limit their consumption, even of fish caught recreationally in
the Hudson.  Women of child-bearing age and children under fifteen are
advised to eat none at all.  Since subsistence fishing is common in the
lower reaches of the river, there are particular concerns in these
areas.  Further, unless the contaminated material is removed, there is
an ever-increasing risk that, while remaining dangerous, it will be
dispersed gradually, carried downstream, and thus become irrecoverable.

Q.  Is the Hudson River really better now?

A.  Yes, but no thanks to GE.  The Clean Water Act, which was passed in
1972 in spite of GE´s strong opposition, required sewage treatment
and minimization of industrial discharges. Standards for water quality
have improved over the past few decades, but PCB´s have persisted
and continue to poison fish, humans, and other organisms.

Q.  Is the Hudson really healing itself?

A.  Not when it comes to PCBs.  PCBs don´t disappear, they just go
somewhere else.  Every day, and especially after heavy rain, PCBs move
downstream into the ecosystem of the tidal Hudson, affecting the
region´s fish, wildlife, and people.  These PCBs enter the ocean
and migrate throughout the world.  Hudson River PCBs have been found in
human and animal fat from the Arctic Circle.

Q.  Will dredging make the river worse, as GE claims?

A.  No.  Many advances have been made in the last 15 years, and suction
removal has been successfully employed at a number of other Superfund
sites around the country.  Often this has allowed fish consumption
advisories to be lifted after just 2 or 3 years. Suction removal does
not ³stir up² the river.  On the contrary, the Eddy Pump, for example,
works like a straw in a milkshake. Likened to ³liposuction,² this vacuum
process leaves the river so undisturbed that operators can monitor the
sediments with underwater cameras mounted at the base of their
equipment. The dredged spoils enter a contained system of storage and
transportation that is closed off from contact with the environment.

Q.  Was GE´s dumping of PCBs legal, as they always claim?

A.  Not always.  For years the state DEC had been trying to get GE to
reduce its staggering discharges, but GE threatened to leave the state,
taking its jobs with it, and made DEC´s position politically
untenable.  GE had permits to pollute -- but frequently violated them.

Q.  Will the upstate economy be devastated by a cleanup, as GE claims?

Hardly!  If EPA calls for a cleanup of the PCB hot spots, GE will have
to spend between $500 million and a billion dollars in the area. 
According to economists, each dollar spent in a community has a
³multiplier effect² of 8 dollars.  The cleanup could employ hundreds of
area residents, and bring billions of dollars into area businesses.

Q.  Will the cleanup be financed by my tax dollars?

A.  No. Superfund law stipulates that the polluter must pay.  Why else
would GE be fighting the cleanup so vigorously?

Q.  GE says it has spent $165 million cleaning up the river.  Is this

A.  It has spent millions -- but only on its own property, and only
after the DEC forced it to with Consent Orders.  Also included in that
number are lawyers, lobbyists, and PR agency fees for the fight against
a cleanup.  Watch for this number to start rising as the costs of
GE´s $2 million-per-week ad campaign are included.

Q.  Won´t it be destructive to dredge the whole river?

A.  The whole river does not need dredging.  In fact, only a few ³hot
spots² must be dredged, with minimal impact even on the local biota.

Q.  According to GE, scientists now believe PCBs don´t hurt people.
Is that true?

A.  No.  GE paid a chemical-industry-funded research group to hire
private detectives to find every GE employee who worked at or near the
PCB plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward.  1)  Many of the people in
the study worked there less than a year.  2)  The study included
thousands of people who never came in contact with PCBs.  If every
worker who did come in contact with PCBs died of cancer, the mortality
would not have been `statistically significant.´ 3)  The study did not
look at the incidence of cancer; just mortality.  Every single former GE
employee could have been battling cancer for twenty years with no impact
on this GE-funded study.

Q.  If  we do what GE says, when will the fish be safe to eat again?

A.  50 years!

The Hudson River PCB Story

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Updated 10/3/2000