At once a spectacle of nature and commerce, the Hudson River has served the region as a tourist destination, working waterway, and loyal dumping ground for industrial waste and untreated sewage since the mid-nineteenth century. Among the contaminants that lurk beneath the surface today are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — one of the many synthetics produced by the modern chemical industry that have deleterious effects on humans and ecosystems. These oily, invisible chemicals accumulate in the riverbed, fish, and the fatty tissue of humans, and cause a panoply of health issues from developmental disorders to cancer. While PCBs were banned in 1979 under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, today they can be detected at every point along the Hudson.
Over three decades, General Electric (GE) flushed an estimated 1.3 million pounds of immiscible, PCB-rich waste into the river from two capacitor plants at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. Bob Boyle, fisherman and founder of Riverkeeper, was the first to sound the alarm about widespread contamination. In a 1970 Sports Illustrated exposé, Boyle revealed that DDT residues and PCBs had been detected in the flesh and eggs of some of the most popular American saltwater fishes. Fishermen, concerned scientists and residents, and groups such as Natural Resources Defense Council and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater pressured New York State — and then the federal government — to take notice of damning laboratory results and issue a warning about fish consumption. In the meantime, the removal of a dam at Fort Edward led to a cascade of contamination downstream, permeating the Hudson’s floodplains and catastrophically altering the river’s biota. The magnitude of the problem was unmistakable: 1.3 million pounds of striped bass were caught in the river between 1974 and 1975 alone, and communities and facilities along its banks drew on its water for drinking.
In 1975, the State’s new environmental conservation commissioner Ogden Reid was forwarded a federal report that detailed the river’s contamination. PCBs had been found in the river’s striped bass at levels 600 percent higher than was deemed safe to eat according to consumption limits recently been established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Reid banned GE from dumping waste into the Hudson and imposed limits on fishing. A month after Reid’s announcement, GE admitted that 65 of its employees had developed pustulous skin lesions and nausea after dealing with PCBs directly.
That same year, the department began an administrative enforcement proceeding against GE. But a $7 million settlement covered just a small fraction of the cost of cleaning up the PCBs: estimated in 1978 at $200 million. Funding was unforthcoming before the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Superfund program kicked off in 1980. The federal program compels polluters to pay for the remediation of egregiously contaminated sites, and since its launch, over 1,300 “cleanups” have either been completed or are underway. The agency rated the “problem sufficiently high to be considered for inclusion on the National Priorities List” — the official register of Superfund sites. In the fall of 1984, a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to The Battery, joined the list. The party deemed responsible for the cleanup was GE.
Haunting the Hudson’s recovery is the question of how to effectively clean up PCBs. In the 1990s, the EPA authorized capping several highly contaminated locations of the riverbank near GE’s former plants with sand, a geosynthetic clay liner, and vegetation. But after multiple reassessments and a ten-year study, the EPA put forward a new plan: GE would pay for the dredging of 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from “hotspots” along a 40-mile stretch of the river. Involving more than 350 GE employees, contractors, and consultants, the company deployed clamshell dredging machines, fixed to barges, to scoop up hazardous soil from the riverbed between 2009 and 2016. Initially, a mixture of sand and soil was used to “cap” locations where PCBs remained, but the soil separated from the sand upon entry to the water. Several seasons later, it became apparent that the caps did not meet their intended goal. Anthracite, a denser coal-based material, was added to subsequent caps. The cleanup approach was further complicated by the machines used: Clamshell dredge buckets, which are imperfect collectors of sediment, are known to remobilize PCBs in the water and result in at least a temporary increase in the contaminant concentration in fish.
The dredged PCB-waste was dumped onto scows, filtered, then transported via rail cars to six storage facilities, including one in Andrews, Texas where it remains entombed in red clay pits. But the battle to remove PCBs entirely is a questionable goal given the ecosystem that they were dumped within — a dynamic estuary where sediment, water, and waste are in perpetual motion, moved about by the gravity-fed streams to the north, and by the currents and tides that connect the Hudson (south of the federal dam at Troy) to the North Atlantic Ocean. Flooding has spread the toxins onto low-lying lands that hold schools, farms, and homes. An investigation by GE and the EPA of PCBs in floodplains north of Troy — the “Upper” Hudson — is ongoing. While contamination is being monitored in the river south of Troy — the “Lower” Hudson — there are no plans to remediate the area as of yet. But the seamless migration of PCBs downstream defies the compartmentalization of the river into sections and “hotspots” — terms that belie the Homeric scale and shifting nature of the contamination, from Troy to Texas.
GE has touted the dredging’s complete success, presumably because of a decline in PCBs in the specific hotspots they worked on. In 2019, the EPA agreed, issuing GE a certificate of completion. While more of a formality than a get-out-jail-free card, the certificate nonetheless lets the company off the hook until 2025, when the river will be officially retested for PCB contamination. Ongoing fishing advisory warnings suggest the remedial actions to date are not yet protective of human health. According to State health guidelines, women under 50 and children under 15 should not eat any fish from the Hudson. Even the EPA’s goal of reducing PCBs in the Hudson’s fish to 0.05 parts per million is premised on one safe, half-pound fish meal per week. More than five decades since the discovery of widespread contamination of PCBs in the Hudson, and billions of dollars in cleanup later, the chemicals continue to circulate in the river’s ecosystem, dispersed throughout its sediment, fish, and bodies.