By John Cronin
Where will the dredge material be disposed once it is removed from the river?
— Posted by Dan
A number of posts have asked about the amount and destination of dredged material from the Hudson. Dan’s is the simplest (and he asked first). But I will try to cover all the questions here, so pardon the lengthy answer.
First, the full operation of coordinating, staging and executing the dredging and material processing is impressive. G.E. is mobilizing 17 tugboats, 35 barges and 12 dredges working 24 hours per day, six days a week to remove and process the 400,000 tons of sediment that Environmental Protection Agency is focusing on for Phase 1, which ends in November when weather closes the Champlain Canal.
Despite the world-class collection of heavy equipment, one of the most striking aspects of the operation is its relative quiet. Attention to details, such as “hospital-grade generators,” was an essential part of the project design agreed to by the E.P.A. and G.E. If you visit the dredging project, and I recommend it, don’t expect a cacophonous construction site. (Carpool, and visit Jim’s Broadway Café, or one of the many local establishments.)
In addition, the E.P.A. created extensive engineering standards regarding all components of the process.
The dredged materials are destined for a 1,338-acre hazardous and radioactive waste processing and disposal site owned and operated by Waste Control Specialists LLC in Andrew County, Tex., near the New Mexico border. The site is permitted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and E.P.A. oversight.
This is G.E.’s description of the steps in the dredging and disposal process, from the Hudson River to Texas:
“After the sediments are dredged from the river bottom, they will be transported by barges to the project’s sediment processing and transportation facility located on the Champlain Canal in the town of Fort Edward. There, water will be removed from the sediment and treated. The dried sediment will be loaded into gondola rail cars lined with protective plastic and transported about 2,200 miles to Texas.
As the rail cars arrive at the W.C.S. facility in Texas, they will enter an enclosed structure. There the sediments will be transferred into large trucks that will transport them to disposal cells where the sediments will be placed, spread and compacted. When filled, each disposal cell will be covered by a composite of compacted clay, geosynthetic liner, topsoil and vegetation.”
The Texas site is E.P.A. approved, but it is not without controversy. The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club objected to the imminent arrival of Hudson River PCBs and demanded that the E.P.A. require an environmental impact statement and public hearings before allowing the disposal to proceed. One member said, “This is like a shell game, moving hazardous toxic PCBs from one sensitive location to another.”
The acting Region 2 administrator for the E.P.A., George Pavlou, denied the request on behalf of the agency, citing precedent that a separate impact statement is not required, and stated that Superfund “does not require E.P.A. to hold public meetings in locations that are not near the site.”
It is a reminder that an ambitious cleanup such as the Hudson’s is not without environmental trade-offs of its own. G.E. showed me the plans for the operation three years ago, but I was still surprised at what I saw first hand just this month. G.E. has had to construct a 110-acre processing and transportation center, a 28,000-square-foot water treatment plant, a two-mile-long road along the Champlain Canal, and seven miles of railroad track. Every three to four days until October, an 81-car train, of the 250 cars dedicated to the project, will leave Fort Edward loaded with dredged material to make the 4,400-mile round trip to Texas and back.
I wrote in a previous post that the social and political history of the Hudson River dredging project would prove to be an important case study. My hope is that the experience of the PCB cleanup operation will also provide a fresh opportunity to evaluate the overall environmental costs and benefits of such huge cleanups, while advancing our understanding of the efficacy of the dredging itself.
(This short film, taken at the Croton Point landfill on the Hudson River in 1971, is an example of industrial waste disposal practices that were common before the standards that were established under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.)
As the project continues, will river water be tested for PCBs as far away from the dredge site as Hudson, Kingston and Poughkeepsie? And will the E.P.A. continue to test river water in communities closer to the site even if the dredging project stalls?
— Posted by Susan
The New York State Department of Health conducted PCB testing of seven communities, from Poughkeepsie to Waterford, that take drinking water from the Hudson “to establish a baseline before General Electric begins dredging PCB-contaminated sediments.” The Health Department is overseeing a program of follow-up testing as well.
G.E. collects an average of 53 samples per day. It tests for PCBs, metals, suspended solids and general water quality parameters at each dredging location, as well as at Rogers Island and Stillwater. Samples are collected monthly at Albany and Poughkeepsie. Since the commencement of dredging on May 15, G.E. has collected 2,144 samples.
There can be occasional delays in dredging. For example, when the downriver flow reaches 8,000 cubic feet per second, dredging is generally halted. In that case, water testing continues. I am unaware of a contingency testing plan if the project experiences a long-term delay. It would depend upon the circumstances. If the delay was caused by elevated levels of PCBs downstream, testing would have to continue.
If we didn’t dredge, how long would it take for the PCBs to naturally dissipate to acceptable levels?
— Posted by Peter North
The best information is included in the E.P.A.’s Feasibility Study (pdf) and Proposed Plan (pdf). When reading through these documents, keep in mind that of the alternative remediation strategies that are discussed, the “REM-3/10/Select” was the dredging plan ultimately chosen by the E.P.A. The reports do not use the same vocabulary as your question, but they are very helpful.
The evaluations performed in these studies relate mainly to threats to human health as conveyed through the consumption of fish. I stated in an earlier post that predictions about reductions in PCB concentrations in fish were speculation. This is true, but it is educated speculation.
Some quick facts. The E.P.A. feasibility report says that the current dredging alternative, “REM-3/10/Select,” will result in “a reduction in cancer risks through fish consumption … from 79 percent to 84 percent” compared with no dredging.
“PCB Target Concentrations” in fish, averaged over the entire upper Hudson, would reach 0.2 parts per million in 35 years with dredging, but “greater than 67 years” if there were no dredging. The “greater than 67 years” figure is the upper limit of the E.P.A.’s willingness to predict — it could be 75 or 100 or more.
According to the E.P.A., a concentration of 0.2 p.p.m. would allow one meal of fish per month. A concentration of 0.4 p.p.m. would be reached in 20 years with dredging. It would take “greater than 67 years” to reach that level if there were no dredging. This would allow for one meal of fish every two months.
Is the PCB issue the most important environmental issue for the Hudson today? Also, I live in North Carolina and would like to help educate people in my state about cleaning up PCBs. Can you recommend a good starting point for someone like me — books, Web sites, nongovernmental organizations, etc.?
— Posted by Zoe
Hello, North Carolina! In answer to your first question, no. The PCB issue is certainly the most notorious, most expensive, most ambitious and most well-known of Hudson River issues. But the impact of daily human life is the largest danger to the Hudson, and a cumulative threat not easily, or perhaps properly, separated into digestible pieces.
The Hudson River is subject to all the impacts that a concentration of population brings to a river basin. Most have stumped policy makers and managers for at least as long as PCBs: fish kills at cooling water intakes, storm water discharges and sewage spills, lax pretreatment standards for industrial waste streams discharged to municipal treatment plants, polluted runoff, groundwater contamination, overdevelopment, acidification, abandoned industrial sites, declining fisheries and more.
A list like this can make it sound as though there has been no progress on the Hudson. There has been tremendous progress. I have seen it personally over a 35-year career. And the Hudson River is widely regarded as an environmental success story. But it is a measure of the large task yet ahead that a new generation of innovation is still required to solve problems that are several generations old.
Interestingly enough, what propelled the PCB case to the forefront is not just the toxicity of PCBs but also the significant financial resources of General Electric. The federal and state governments do not have even the combined financial resources to mobilize the PCB cleanup effort that G.E. is undertaking. Many of the problems I have listed in this post require the same level of innovation and attention as the PCB cleanup, even if they do not require the same level of investment.
The brass ring that has eluded the Hudson River is comprehensive management that encompasses land, air and water, and matches ecological principles with economic growth, social justice, and scientific and technological innovation. It will come. But it is the most important issue of all.
As for learning more about PCBs, a Web search will yield an enormous amount of information. Use good judgment about choosing reputable sources. I would steer you to health and science agencies as well as university level research that has been widely reviewed. As always, there can be as much bad information as good.
I also advise studying the Hudson River dredging project. To start, go to the PCB Web sites of E.P.A. and General Electric. This additional E.P.A. site contains a quick summary of the Hudson River case with information that is generally helpful. The National Academies conducted a study of large-scale dredging (pdf). And this page from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is a good summary of human health issues.
What can we do to get the science out to the average American who isn’t reading scientific journals?
— Posted by Anne
As you can see from the above answers, and from the City Room Blog itself, the Internet is an indispensable tool for providing access to information. I think it holds the greatest promise for “getting the science out.”
However, just getting the information in front of the public does not mean the information is written in a way that is comprehensible for the average person. As long as I have been a working environmentalist, I still labor over legalese, official language and technical jargon. Just because information appears on a Web site does not mean it is relevant or accurate.
First, however, the science has to exist. Not that many years ago, “applied science” — that is, scientific inquiry applied to everyday questions, problems or policies — was frowned upon. Many scientists thought that the integrity of research had to be insulated from the intrusion of other concerns. This has changed considerably, but in some cases not enough. More research needs to be applied to policy, and human needs must be channeled more aggressively into research agendas.
Second, science has to be translated into knowledge and usable information. There are learned people who can communicate though arcane data and formulas. Most people cannot. But the art of science translation is not easy to master. Occasionally, someone like Carl Sagan will come along who has the gift of presenting information in a way that is appealing to a popular audience. That is a rarity. We need science translators for the public. By the same token, we need policy translators for scientists, and even science translators for engineers. At Beacon Institute, we call this a “circle of consultation” — a process in which public need and diverse disciplines influence and inform each other’s priorities.
Third, the full potential of the Internet still has to be tapped. By this I don’t mean bandwidth and connectivity, though those are concerns. Over time, I hope to see the online community evolve innovative tools for presentation and interlinking information aimed specifically at citizens who face the challenge of interpreting technical documents, and understanding policy and regulation. An online library of “citizen science,” “citizen law” and sample case files meant to assist citizens who want to participate in environmental decision-making could fast become the largest library of citizen tools in the world. I believe there is a special place for colleges and universities in this innovative communication role.