FORT EDWARD, N.Y. – A dredging barge began scooping PCB-contaminated mud from a narrow stretch of the Hudson River on Friday, cheered on by environmentalists who waged a sometimes contentious cleanup fight that dragged on for decades.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency held a riverside ceremony to mark the beginning of the massive Superfund cleanup of the river north of Albany. The project is expected to cost $750 million and take at least six years.
General Electric Co., which discharged wastewater containing PCBs into the Hudson before the substance was banned in 1977, will pay for and oversee the work.
A few of the activists and government officials who gathered on the wooded shoreline applauded as the first load of contaminated river bottom was plucked out by a clamshell dredge and dumped into an adjacent barge. The muck will be treated at a multimillion-dollar plant nearby. The treated PCBs will be buried at a site in Texas.
“This is an historic day for an historic river,” said George Pavlou, the EPA’s acting regional administrator.
Considered a probable carcinogen, PCBs have been linked to immune, reproductive and nervous-system problems. Before they were banned more than 30 years ago, they were commonly used as coolants and lubricants.
GE plants in Fort Edward and neighboring Hudson Falls discharged wastewater containing PCBs into the river over several decades. A 40-mile stretch of the upper Hudson became contaminated after a dam at Fort Edward was removed in 1973.
Under an agreement with the EPA, GE will clean up 265,000 cubic yards of river bottom this year. The dredging will target PCB “hot spots” along a roughly five-mile stretch of river south from Fort Edward. Once the operation is in full swing, multiple dredgers with clamshell-like scoops will scrape up the polluted river bottom, one bite at a time. Operations will run around the clock every day but Sunday.
Results will be studied before a second, much larger, stage would begin. And dredged sections of the river will be restored, as necessary, with new sand and plantings. GE has not committed to performing the second phase of the cleanup.
New York officials had investigated a cleanup beginning in the ’70s. By 1984, the EPA listed the river as a Superfund site. The federal agency initially decided against a cleanup, citing technical challenges. The EPA reconsidered its decision in the ’90s, ushering in years of controversy among the little towns on the upper river.