By Roger Witherspoon
The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)
August 2, 2001 Thursday
Any spill during dredging could further pollute river
The Journal News
The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to begin the nation's largest
environmental dredging project without a clear-cut plan for tackling the job.
And there's little margin for error: Any significant spill of the toxic sludge being
pulled from the bottom of the Hudson River will further pollute the river and could
result in a shutdown of the massive cleanup effort.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman's decision would commit the agency to remove 4
million tons of river bottom contaminated with PCBs - and five times that volume of
water - from three sections of the upper Hudson River. Much of that would be
pumped uphill through a floating, river-borne hose.
The decision is based on the agency's belief that it can be done effectively, although
it's not sure how.
"We knew when they first proposed this in December that they had not done all their
homework," said Fort Edward Town Supervisor Merrilyn Pulver, a longtime opponent
"We don't know what 17 miles of shoreline will be totally ripped apart to support
this," Pulver continued. "We don't know whose property they will be taking. We don't
know what roads they will tear up. We don't know where they will treat this material.
"How dare they make these decisions without providing that information to the
community. This decision is unconscionable."
Whitman's decision endorses a plan that is unprecedented in scale and technically
The massive plan calls for the removal of 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment from
40 contaminated "hot spots" along a 40-mile stretch of the meandering river
between Hudson Falls and the Federal Dam at Troy.
These sites, about 170 miles north of Westchester County, contain an estimated
100,000 pounds of PCBs, remnants of 1.3 million pounds dumped into the Hudson by
General Electric plants.
The material will have to be hauled out of the river without spilling contaminated
sediment to flow downriver. The sediment will be dried onshore, transported to
railroad cars and shipped to established landfills designed to handle toxic materials.
None of these logistics has been worked out.
It is not a question of simply removing a wide swath of river bottom. The EPA has
targeted sites encompassing a total of 493 acres in three regions of the river. The
agency intends to remove deposits from the first two sections with hydraulic
dredges, and to use clamshell dredges for the last one. Each of these poses
First is spillage. Dredging opponents contend that disturbing the sediment will
release PCBs into the fast-moving water. A significant "spike" in PCB concentration
would cause far more contamination along the lower portion of the Hudson River
than leaving the PCBs in place.
EPA officials are confident that hydraulic dredging can be done with a minimum of
spillage. But they do not know precisely how. They insist that the difficulties can be
worked out during a 3-year design phase.
"We can say what we think can be done and why we believe it can be done," said
Richard Caspe, director of the EPA's emergency and remedial response division. "But
that is where it stops. We haven't designed it yet."
A demonstration project to remove PCBs from a 7-mile stretch of the Fox River in
Wisconsin resulted in spillage rates ranging from 2.2 percent to nearly 9 percent,
according to the U.S. Geological Survey in a January 2000 report.
That level would be unacceptable, considering the volume of material to be removed
from the Hudson, EPA officials said.
Because of the potential for spillage, the plan was criticized earlier this year by the
National Research Council, a combined unit of the National Academy of Sciences, the
National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.
In a blunt critique, the NRC said, "No remediation technology is effective in removing
all sediment contaminants from a site."
Administrator Whitman acknowledged this difficulty by requiring performance
standards for the project. There will be periodic measurements of PCB levels in the
soil, the water and spilled PCB-laden sediment.
"The EPA will determine at each stage of the project whether it is scientifically
justified to continue the cleanup," the agency said in a statement yesterday.
As a further precaution, the EPA is apparently planning to cleanse each section one
after the other, rather than manage several dredging operations at the same time.
"You can't clean up a 40-mile stretch of river in a big-bang approach," said Ned
sullivan, executive director of Scenic Hudson. "It makes sense to incorporate any
learning from each phase into the next phase."
Manna Jo Green, environmental director for Clearwater, added that the sequential
approach will take longer than the five years initially scheduled for the dredging
"There is a benefit in this approach," Green said. "If a small amount of sediment is
suspended and moves down river, they can pick it up when they pass through on the
The second problem involves logistics. The plan calls for siphoning the muck from the
river floor at a rate of 10 million gallons per hour, with up to 20 percent of that being
sediment. The mud and water will go to settlement ponds and a de-watering facility
somewhere on shore.
As the project progresses, however, the pipeline will extend for several miles, which
"One of the concerns with using a long pipeline on a dredging operation is that it can
get clogged," said Brad Cushing, a partner at Environmental Management Inc. near
Philadelphia. "They propose using boosters at every mile."
"This hasn't been done on an environmental dredging project," he said.
It is not known how the EPA will acquire the private land for its various shore
facilities, or what damage will be done to the river marshes and shallow aquatic
breeding sections in the dredging areas.
"We have six and a half miles that will be environmentally devastated," Fort
Edwards' Pulver stated. "And there are two miles where we will have bank-to-bank
"They will just rip everything out of there, including the wetlands, and there is no
guarantee the river will be better off in the end. This is going to change our