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EPA issues new PCB dredging rules for GE

by Rik Stevens
| December 19, 2010 8:00 PM

ALBANY, N.Y. - General Electric must remove more PCB-tainted sediment from the Hudson River and will have to take better samples of the river bottom when it resumes dredging in the spring, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday.

Environmental groups said the new standards will ultimately mean a cleaner river but criticized the EPA for allowing GE to cap - or, leave covered-over PCBs in the river - up to 11 percent of the total project area, not counting rocky or other hard-to-reach areas. When those trouble spots are included, the new standards mean up to 21 percent of the area could be capped.

"There will still be some level of PCBs under that cap," said Ned Sullivan of the environmental advocacy group Scenic Hudson. "That's the major disappointment."

After reviewing data from the first round of dredging done in 2009, the EPA said it learned lessons it will apply to the second phase of the project. The goal is to remove as much tainted sludge as possible from a 40-mile stretch of the river north of Albany, one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

The EPA said it found that poor sampling underestimated the extent of pollution, including the depth of it in some places, meaning dredgers didn't go deep enough the first time around and had to make multiple passes.

"We've said from the start that a clean Hudson is nonnegotiable, and the path we have laid out today relies on the best science to ensure this dangerous pollution is addressed in an effective way," said Judith Enck, a regional EPA administrator.

GE plants discharged approximately 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls during a 30-period ending in 1977, contaminating nearly 200 miles of the Hudson River. These potentially cancer-causing chemicals can build up in fish over time, posing a serious risk to those who eat them.

In a statement, Fairfield, Conn.-based GE said it was reviewing the new standards and will tell EPA by mid-January if it agrees they are feasible. Dredging is scheduled to resume in May and could take up to seven years to complete. GE has already spent $561 million on the project. Outside estimates released before the Phase 2 standards were announced, suggested the project's total cost could reach $750 million.

"If we determine that the plan is consistent with our technical discussions with EPA, that it is based on sound science, and that it is feasible to achieve, we expect to move forward with Phase 2," the company said.

If GE doesn't agree to conduct the Phase 2 dredging, EPA can order the company to or do the cleanup itself and charge GE.

The cleanup project was divided into two phases: Phase 1 wrapped up in November 2009 and the EPA spent 2010 reviewing the data and considering views of a group of independent scientists before making Friday's recommendations.

In the first phase, nearly 37 percent of the area was capped because of continued contamination, even after several dredging passes that removed a majority of the PCBs. Capping in 15 percent of the area was unavoidable because of physical barriers in the river.

While fish and other aquatic life are not exposed to the contamination in the capped areas, the EPA said it's still necessary in Phase 2 to limit capping to 11 percent if dredging misses cleanup goals.

The EPA also wants to cut down on the level of PCBs kicked up from dredging, setting new standards on "resuspension" to limit wildlife exposure.

They'll test the water at specific points and if it exceeds the maximum allowed for safe drinking water for five days out of any seven, GE could be asked to temporarily slow down or, if it's a particularly high level of resuspension, stop dredging.

Dredging during the second phase will go deeper to remove more contamination with fewer passes.

In the first phase, scoopers were making three or four runs over an area, keeping river bottom uncovered for months. As a result, exposed sediments were able to get free. Phase 2 calls for a maximum of two passes except when an unanticipated high concentration of PCBs is discovered.

Phase 2 will require GE to remove an estimated 95 percent or more of PCBs from the areas designated for dredging. Mark Behan, a spokesman for GE, said the company expects to be able to remove 97 percent.

The EPA also expects more material to be removed every year as a result of the increased efficiency. The agency set a target of 350,000 cubic yards of sediment for 2011 and thinks GE can ultimately get to 500,000 cubic yards a year. In the first phase, 283,000 cubic yards of sediment were dredged.

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