The General Electric Co. (GE) agreed last week to requirements established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for final cleanup of PCB-contaminated sediment in the Hudson River. The second phase of the cleanup is to begin in late spring.

From approximately 1947 to 1977, GE discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from its capacitor manufacturing plants at the Hudson Falls and Fort Edward facilities into the Hudson River.

The Hudson River PCBs Site encompasses a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River in eastern New York State from Hudson Falls, New York to the Battery in New York City and includes communities in 14 New York counties and two counties in New Jersey.

The primary health risk associated with the site is the accumulation of PCBs in the human body through eating contaminated fish. Since 1976, high levels of PCBs in fish have led New York State to close various recreational and commercial fisheries and to issue advisories restricting the consumption of fish caught in the Hudson River. PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens and are linked to other adverse health effects such as low birth weight, thyroid disease, and learning, memory, and immune system disorders. PCBs in the river sediment also affect fish and wildlife.

In an undated statement, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck said, “Over the next few months, we will work with GE on technical plans for the cleanup. We are scheduled to resume dredging this spring. This is an important milestone in the progress we have made over many years in cleaning up and restoring the Hudson River for future generations.”

The first phase of the Hudson River cleanup concluded in late October, after five-and-a-half months of dredging in a six-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River near Fort Edward in New York State. GE conducted the dredging, with EPA oversight, and the company targeted 265,000 cubic yards (cy) of PCB-contaminated sediment. During Phase 1, dredging occurred 24 hours a day, six days a week, with the seventh day reserved for maintenance and make-up time for unplanned project interruptions.

Phase 1, the first year of dredging, was designed to address approximately 10% of the material to be dredged over the six-year project timeframe. At the end of Phase 1, an estimated 293,000 cy of PCB-contaminated sediment had been removed from the river. Although the volume of dredged sediment exceeded established goals for Phase 1, not all of the dredge areas originally targeted for Phase 1 were completed, (10 out of 18 areas were completed) due to sediment contamination in some areas that was deeper than expected.

The second phase of the cleanup, which is expected to last five years, requires GE to remove far more contaminated sediment from the river before sealing or “capping” any remaining PCBs.

Release of the PCBs was legal at the time, but after their cancer-causing potential was realized, the area of the river most affected by the discharges was declared a Superfund site in 1983. Environmental groups pressured GE for years to assume responsibility for the cleanup, to no avail. The recent change in stance is being seen by pundits as necessary for enhancing GE’s “greener” corporate image.

In commenting on the agreement, GE said, “Work plans for the next phase of dredging are being developed and will be submitted to EPA for review and approval in February. Dredging will be conducted in accordance with EPA’s plan for the second phase of the project, released December 17, 2010. The plan largely reflects the discussions GE’s and EPA’s technical teams have conducted over the past few months.”

Sources: EPA, GE