EPA takes first steps on Hudson dredging

River communities keep a wary eye on government's decisions

April 28, 2002|By Kirk Johnson | Kirk Johnson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT EDWARD, N.Y. - A lot of people along this stretch of the Hudson River see Saratoga Springs, 10 miles west and a few dollars up on the economic scale, as a place with its nose in the air. So when word got out this spring that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had chosen Saratoga Springs for its upstate field office - the staging area for its long-delayed program to dredge the Hudson of its PCB pollution - the reaction was swift.

A Fort Edward newspaper published a cartoon showing EPA workers in biohazard suits sipping champagne at a lawn party with the horse-and-pearls set.

The EPA, many people said, had struck a tone-deaf note in its first decision after more than 20 years of study, revealing how little had been learned about the river and its people.

The government promptly surrendered. Contractors are now working double shifts renovating a building in Fort Edward, not far from the most polluted areas. The office will open in May, two months behind schedule.

"Nobody other than us thought it was a good idea," said Richard Caspe, an EPA program director who will oversee the cleanup. Caspe said the Saratoga Springs site was chosen because it was in move-in condition and close to the New York State Thruway, not because it was nice. "So you live and you learn. We're big enough people that we're willing to live and learn."

The stumble may well be forgotten on a project that lasts 10 years or longer. But many people here and within the EPA say that as a first step it also set the tone of what will be one of the largest industrial cleanups in United States history. The issues of engineering, transportation and hydrology are expected to be daunting, environmental experts say. But the political and human dimensions - especially the degree to which the government has pledged to involve the community in planning and decision-making - are likely to be just as crucial to the project's success or failure.

A heavy hand

And hanging over everything is the heavy hand of history. Many residents here, and some scientists within the EPA, have lived the battle of the Hudson PCBs for much of their adult lives and careers, ever since 1976, when Congress banned all sale or use of the chemical as evidence grew about its human health effects and impact on wildlife.

From the first studies to track down the estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs that were spilled or discharged from General Electric Co.'s factories in Fort Edward and in nearby Hudson Falls, through the subsequent political battles that raged from Albany to Washington about proposed remedies, positions became hardened and entrenched.

General Electric spent millions of dollars on scientific studies and advertisements arguing that sediment had entombed the chemicals, insulating them from the recovering life of the river.

Caspe and other EPA officials acknowledged that errors and misstatements over the years had damaged the government's credibility. Opponents of dredging in Congress pushed for tighter controls and safeguards. The result, in the EPA's final "record of decision" issued this year, was a document that mixes equal parts science and sociology.

Turning that legal order into a specific plan of action is an enormous task. Although dredging is not scheduled to begin until 2005, that leaves only three years - a crash course, some environmental experts say - to build what will be an industrial complex for dredging, all under the scrutiny of a community still widely suspicious of whether it should be done at all, and doubtful that it can be done right.

"Scale is one of the significant attributes of this project, and the level of community involvement is another," said Philip Spadaro, director of port and harbor services at Hart Crowser, an environmental engineering and consulting company in Seattle that is not involved in the work here. "I'm not aware of anything approaching community involvement like they plan to have on the Hudson."

Taking core samples

This summer, 3,000 core samples will be taken from the river's bottom. Although general maps show where the PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were deposited after leaving GE's factories from the 1940s into the 1970s, getting the oily yellow chemical out of the mud will require what is in effect a zoom lens close-up, pinpointing exact concentrations and locations.

The core samples will in turn shape the decision of where to build the first of what could be two huge sludge-processing plants, which will remove water from the dredge spoils after they are removed. The first plant site, EPA officials say, must be selected by the end of this year to be up and ready in time.

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