Thesis: Hudson River and PCB

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¶ … PCB contamination of the Upper Hudson River. The General Electric Company's involvement in the pollution will be discussed, as well as the established clean up plans for the largest Superfund site in the country. In addition, current progress on the remediation of the river will be presented.

The Hudson River and PCBs

In the late 1970s, scientists and health officials became aware of the health hazards associated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This group of man-made chemicals was used in a variety of industrial processes, from the manufacture of carbonless copy paper to insulators for transformers and capacitors. Due to the unique properties of PCBs, they bind readily to sediment. The sediment sinks to the bottom of rivers and is eaten by small organisms. Through the food chain, and the bioaccumulation process, predators, birds of prey and humans were increasingly exposed to high levels of PCBs. Significant health risks were discovered including: increased incidence of cancer, immunological problems, developmental problems, liver damage, brain disorders, and more.

Prior to their ban in 1976, the General Electric Company (GE) utilized PCBs at two of their facilities along the Hudson River, in New York -- the Hudson Falls facility and the Fort Edward facility. Over a thirty-year time span, it is believed that the company dumped up to 1.3 million pounds of PCBs in the river. The 200-mile site, running from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City, is the largest Superfund site in the country.

Long years of legal wrangling and lobbying by GE, along with well-placed marketing hoping to garner public support for leaving the site alone, resulted in the organization eventually being tasked with remediation of the site. The remediation program is a three-phase program. The immediate phase and the first of the long-term phase, which involved removal of remnant soil along the river banks that had been exposed due to receding water levels, are complete. The third part of the program, the remediation of the river sediment, is far more complex and costly.

It is anticipated, by the EPA, that this part of the program will cost GE approximately $750 million. Although again the company tried as many stall tactics as possible, work began in the first phase of this sediment remediation. The first phase of the project was a short 6-mile section of the river, which resulted in the removal of approximately 400,000 tons of contaminated sediment. The dredging process was conducted under the watchful eye of the EPA and an outside, independent evaluator. Beginning on May 15th, 2009 and ending October 23rd, 2009, the results from the EPA and the evaluator will be used to fine tune the remediation plan for the remaining 34 miles of the Hudson River, which is scheduled to begin in 2011.

The costs of this remediation project go beyond those of this current remediation of the river sediment. In addition to removal and capping costs already incurred, GE faces possible additional clean up projects in the near future. Testing in the floodplains has recently been conducted and GE may be looking at more remediation work in these areas. What seemed to be a cost effective business strategy of disposing GE's PCB waste into the river will now likely cost the organization more than $1 billion, once it's all said and done.

PCBs Overview and Their Effects

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals that were used commonly in electrical equipment. They were also widely used in a variety of industrial processes and during manufacturing and recycling of carbonless copy paper. PCBs were used until research found the chemicals posed human health risks, as well as risks to wildlife and the environment. In 1976, the production of PCBs was banned, in the United States. However, PCB contamination is still an environmental concern due to the improper disposal of products that contained PCBs, as well as disposal of byproducts that were used in the process of making these products ("What are PCBs," 2008). Of particular challenge are the binding properties of PCBs and its effect on the food chain.

PCBs do not dissolve readily in water; however, they do bind easily with sediment particles. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ("What are PCBs," 2008) notes that the binding of PCBs to sediment particles is one million times stronger than to water molecules. Once PCBs attach to sediment, they eventually sink to the bottom of the water source. There, tiny organism eat the PCB-laden sediment particles. Small fish eat these organisms and retain the PCBs in their body fat. Small fish are eaten by larger fish. Larger fish are eaten by birds of prey and people. Due to bioaccumulation and biomagnification, PCB levels is humans, birds of prey, and larger fish can be millions of times higher than found in surface water. There are several serious health concerns associated with the build up of PCBs in the body.

The public health implications of PCBs is significant. Stored in fat, PCB levels can increase over time. Human health concerns include immunological, developmental, reproductive, and neurobehavioral problems. Studies found several serious health concerns due to exposure to PCBs. PCB exposure was found to be linked to an increased risk of cancer. Infants and children born to mothers who were exposed to PCBs demonstrated increased developmental problems and reduced mental abilities. Nervous, immune, circulatory, and hormonal system problems were more prevalent in those who had been exposed to PCBs. Liver damage, brain disorders and skin problems too were found to be associated with PCBs ("PCBs and health," 2008). Because of the physical properties of the chemicals, the greatest exposure risk comes from consumption of fish.

The most common way humans come into contact with PCB-contaminated sediment, is through fish. The highest incidence of exposure is found in people who are recreational anglers and high-intake fish consumers. These two groups were found to have the highest cancer risks and non-cancer health effects, due to their large percentage of PCB-laden fish consumption. In fact, the risk of harmful effects is 10 times higher, for fish consumers, than any other group ("PCBs and health," 2008). According to the EPA, exposure pathways other than fish consumption, do not pose a significant risk, including: drinking water, volatilization, and recreational exposure to contaminated settlement or water ("Hudson River PCBs," 2008). Although PCB contamination can be found across the United States, one of the most highly publicized contamination sites is the Hudson River, in New York.

The Hudson River Site

Deemed an American Heritage River, due to its important role in American history and culture, the Hudson River is one of the most well-known PCB contamination sites. The Hudson River PCBs site runs approximately 200 miles from Hudson Falls, New York to the Battery in New York City. One of the most highly contaminated areas of the site, and the area first chosen for remediation, is the 40-mile stretch reaching from Hudson Falls to Troy, New York, as the river traverses through Washington, Saratoga, and Rensselaer Counties. Two capacitor manufacturing facilities, owned by the General Electric Company, had been located in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York. PCBs discharged from these two plants contaminated the Upper Hudson River. Five remnant deposits were also included in the first area of remediation, following their exposure due to the lowering of the level of the river, when the Fort Edward dam was removed in 1973 ("Hudson River PCBs," 2008). The PCB concern originally led to a ban in fishing.

Bioaccumulation of PCBs in fish and other aquatic organisms led to a ban by the State of New York of fishing in the Upper Hudson River, in 1976. It wasn't until 1995 when this fishing was reopened on a catch-and-release basis, while the lower Hudson River still has a commercial fishing ban in place, along with a consumption advisory ("Hudson River PCBs," 2008). Although consumption of contaminated fish is a primary means of transfer of the toxins, maternal transfer too can occur.

Kelly, Eisenreich, Baker, and Rowe (2008) studied the accumulation and maternal transfer of PCBs in snapping turtles. It was found that the PCB contamination of the Hudson River had significant negative effects on the snapping turtles. The researchers collected adult turtles in areas known to be contaminated with PCBs. They also analyzed PCB levels in eggs in the area. Both adults and eggs were found to have high levels of PCBs, resulting in the conclusion that there was maternal transfer to the eggs. In addition, there are several other environmental, economic, and social factors of concern for this Hudson River area.

The state capital city of Albany lies in the Hudson River Basin. Much of the land in the basin is used for agricultural purposes, as well as service, manufacturing and residential. The Hudson River is a primary source of hydroelectric power for the area. There is transportation that relies on the river as well. Recreation on the Hudson River is an aspect that needs to be taken into consideration as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Hudson River and PCB.  (2009, December 11).  Retrieved November 19, 2019, from

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"Hudson River and PCB."  11 December 2009.  Web.  19 November 2019. <>.

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"Hudson River and PCB."  December 11, 2009.  Accessed November 19, 2019.