Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric polluted the Hudson River by discharging polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), causing a range of harmful effects to wildlife and people who eat fish from the river or drink the water. Other kinds of pollution, including mercury contamination and cities discharging untreated sewage, have also caused problems in the river.
In response to this contamination, activists protested in various ways; for instance, musician Pete Seeger founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and the Clearwater Festival to draw attention to the problem. Environmental activism led to passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, as well as federal government designation of the river as a Superfund site in 1984.
Extensive remediation actions on the river began in the 1970s with the implementation of wastewater discharge permits and consequent reduction of wastewater discharges, and sediment removal operations, which have continued into the 21st century.
Numerous factories that once lined the Hudson River poured garbage and industrial waste directly into the river. These factories produced transformers, capacitors, and electric motors, which used PCBs as dielectric and coolant fluid. This pollution was not comprehensively assessed until the 1970s. By that time, the largest remaining factories in the area were owned by General Electric, which became primarily responsible for cleaning the Hudson River. Between approximately 1947 and 1977, GE released between 500,000 and 1,500,000 pounds (230,000 and 680,000 kg) of PCBs into the river. The PCBs came from the company’s two capacitor manufacturing plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1979. The bulk of the PCBs in the river were manufactured by Monsanto Co. under the brand names Aroclor 1242 and Aroclor 1016. The highest concentration of PCBs is found in the Thompson Island Pool.
The PCBs caused extensive contamination of fish in the river and apparently triggered a rapid evolutionary change in the Atlantic tomcod, which after about 50 years of exposure evolved a two amino acid change in its AHR2 receptor gene, causing the receptor to bind more weakly with PCBs than normal. The mutation does not prevent the tomcods from accumulating PCBs in their bodies and passing them on to striped bass and whatever else eats them.This system of passing contamination on to larger organisms is also known as biomagnification. The toxic chemicals also accumulated in sediments that settled to the river bottom.
In 1976 NYSDEC banned all fishing in the Upper Hudson because of health concerns with PCBs. It also issued advisories restricting the consumption of fish caught within a 20-mile (30 km) long segment of the Hudson River from Hudson Falls to Troy.
The New York State Department of Health recommends eating no fish caught from the South Glens Falls Dam to the Federal Dam at Troy. Women under 50 and children under 15 are not advised to eat any fish caught south of the Palmer Falls Dam in Corinth, while others are advised to eat anywhere from one to four meals per month of Hudson River fish, depending on species and location caught. The Department of Health cites mercury, PCBs, dioxin, and cadmium as the chemicals impacting fish in these areas.
PCBs are thought to be responsible for health issues that include neurological disorders, lower IQ and poor short-term memory (active memory), hormonal disruption, suppressed immune system, cancer, skin irritations, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, heart disease, and diabetes. PCB contamination in humans may come from drinking the contaminated water, absorption through the skin, eating contaminated aquatic life, and/or inhaling volatilized PCBs. PCB contamination is especially dangerous for pregnant and nursing women. The contamination can reach the fetus and potentially cause birth defects. Contamination through breast milk can also have harmful effects on the child indirectly
In 1966, Pete Seeger and Toshi Seeger founded Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an environmental education organization and an actual boat (a sloop), that promotes awareness of the river and its history. Clearwater gained national recognition for its activism starting in the 1970s to force a clean-up of PCB contamination of the Hudson caused by GE and other companies. Other specific Hudson watershed issues with which Clearwater is concerned are development pressures in the southern half of the Hudson Valley, pesticide runoff, the Manhattan west side waterfront, Indian Point nuclear reactors, and New York/New Jersey Harbor dredge spoil disposal.
In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act and established a nationwide discharge permit system for all surface waters. All Hudson River point source dischargers were required to obtain permits issued by NYSDEC. The restrictions in these permits led to an overall reduction in pollutant loadings to the river, as factories, power plants and municipalities installed or improved their wastewater treatment systems or made other plant modifications to reduce pollution. However, persistent pollutants such as PCBs and heavy metals, that had been discharged prior to implementation of the new permit requirements, remained in the sediments of the river.
In 1980, Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) agreed to drop its 17-year fight to build a pumped-storage hydroelectricity facility on Storm King Mountain, after a legal challenge by the non-profit environmental organization Scenic Hudson. The actions of local citizen organizations that led to the Con Ed decision spurred the creation of Riverkeeper, a non-profit environmental organization that grew into a global umbrella organization, the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Among the initial attempts to clean up the upper Hudson River was the removal in 1977–78 of 180,000 cubic yards (140,000 m3) of contaminated river sediments near Fort Edward. In 1984, EPA declared a 200-mile (320 km) stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to New York City, to be a Superfund site requiring cleanup. This hazardous waste site is considered to be one of the largest in the nation. There have been many programs of remediation work to reduce the PCB pollution. In 1991, further PCB pollution was found at Bakers Falls, near the former GE Hudson Falls factory, and a program of remediation was started. In August 1995, a 40-mile (64 km) reach of the upper Hudson was reopened to fishing, but only on a catch-and-release basis.Removal of contaminated soil from Rogers Island was completed in December 1999.
In 2001, after a ten-year study of PCB contamination in the Hudson River, EPA proposed a plan to clean up the river by dredging more than 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of PCBs. The worst PCB hotspots are targeted for remediation by removing and disposing of more than 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The dredging project is the most aggressive environmental effort ever proposed to clean up a river, and will cost GE about $460,000,000. In 2002, EPA announced a further 2,650,000 cubic yards (2,030,000 m3) of contaminated sediments in the upper Hudson River would be removed.
GE began sediment dredging operations to clean up the PCBs on May 15, 2009.This stage (Phase One) of the cleanup was completed in October 2009, and was responsible for the removal of approximately 300,000 cubic yards (230,000 m3) of contaminated sediment, which was more than the targeted amount.
Over 620 barges filled with sediment were transported to the processing facility on the Champlain Canal, and over 80 rail cars transported the dredged sediment to a waste facility in Andrews, Texas.
The true scope of Phase One was about 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 m3) more than planned, and Phase Two was to be expanded as a consequence.
Phase Two of the cleanup project, led by GE and monitored by EPA, began in June 2011, targeting approximately 2,400,000 cubic yards (1,800,000 m3) of PCB-contaminated sediment from a forty-mile section of the Upper Hudson River.
Phase Two of the cleanup will take approximately 5 to 7 years to complete. In 2010, General Electric agreed to finance and conduct a second dredging campaign at the Upper Hudson River between Fort Edward and Troy. These works have been supervised by EPA.
Though the cleanup has been slow, environmental advocacy groups have reached out to the general public on the condition of the river’s pollution. Scenic Hudson, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Hudson Riverkeeper, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have continued to push for more action from General Electric.After Seeger’s death in 2014, EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck stated that “the incredible work” of Seeger and the Clearwater organization helped make the Hudson River cleaner.
Water quality improvement
In 2016, a humpback whale was spotted swimming in the Hudson River west of 63rd Street in Manhattan. Whales have become a more common sight in the river recently. This is because of a combination of cleanup of waste in the river as well as conservation of wildlife that creates a hospitable habitat for the whales. Whales have been spotted all the way up to the George Washington Bridge. The whales are especially prominent during feeding season in the fall. State and federal officials are warning kayakers and boaters to slow down and stay at least 100 feet (30 m) from any whales in the area in order to not distress or hurt the whales.
GE fought a media and political battle to avoid cleaning up the river and countered that dredging the river would actually stir up PCBs. In 2002, EPA ordered GE to clean up a 40-mile (64 km) stretch of the Hudson River it had contaminated.
Hudson River PCBs Superfund Site Fact Sheet • Second Five-Year Review • Certification of Completion of the Remedial Action April 11, 2019
EPA Releases Final Five-Year Review Report for Hudson River PCBs Superfund Site and Certifies that Dredging and Related Construction Work was Properly Completed
EPA is announcing two actions today:
1. The issuance of the five-year review, which includes EPA’s decision to defer a determination of the protectiveness of the remedy in the Upper Hudson River until more years of Hudson River fish tissue data are gathered.
2. In a separate action from the issuance of the five-year review, EPA also issued a “Certification of Completion of the Remedial Action” today to GE for activities it conducted that were components of the remedy selected for the cleanup of the Upper Hudson River.
This is the second certificate in a series of three: the first was issued in 2012, the second today, and the third is not expected to be available to GE for more than five decades. Consequently, the third certificate, the “Certification of Completion of Work” is not being contemplated and is not a part of today’s announcement. EPA’s important work to address contamination along the Upper Hudson River continues.
Under a separate agreement with the Agency, GE is conducting a detailed investigation of the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination that may be present in sediment carried onto land during flooding.
EPA is also working closely with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to determine what additional supplemental studies should be conducted in the lower portions of the Hudson River from the Troy Dam downstream to New York City.
Those supplemental studies will inform EPA on the need for a remedial investigation and if a potential cleanup is necessary in this portion of the river.