History buffs fear damage from Hudson cleanup

Dredging called threat to artifacts from river valley's early days

August 01, 2002|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

FORT EDWARD, N.Y. - A new wrinkle has emerged in the Hudson River cleanup, one that has renewed old feuds and could change the way dredging is done along the river: how to remove PCBs without destroying evidence of the Hudson Valley's past.

Along with industrial contamination, the 40-mile stretch of river north of the Troy Dam to be dredged contains clues about the region's history: buried remnants of early American Indian civilizations, pieces of forts and weapons used during the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, and artifacts from old farmsteads and early railroads.

What has yet to be discovered could be lost unless the dredgers - either the federal government or General Electric Co. - tread carefully.

"Cultural resources must get at least the same attention as natural resources," said David Starbuck, a historical archaeologist excavating along the Hudson's shore in Fort Edward and a member of the town's cultural advisory committee.

"The prehistoric sites along the Hudson are rich and occur everywhere," he said.

Starbuck was one of several experts discussing the potential impact of the dredging project on the Hudson River's cultural and historical resources at the recent monthly meeting of the Governor's Hudson River Task Force. The river is one of the nation's largest hazardous-waste, or Superfund, sites.

Decades of PCBs

GE used PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, for about three decades as an insulator in electric capacitors. The company legally discharged more than 1 million pounds of the chemicals into the river before the chemicals were banned in 1976.

While some Hudson River artifacts were likely removed during past floods and the navigational dredging that took place on the river until the late 1970s, the consensus is that there are more to be found underwater and along the banks.

Previous excavations - in 1986 as part of the construction of a wastewater-treatment plant - unearthed relics. And an archaeological study conducted along the river in the late 1980s, when the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first considered dredging and disposing of the sediment on land, uncovered information about the area's past.

"After many years of data, all the historic resources are not known," said Robert Kuhn, assistant director of the state Historic Preservation Office at Peebles Island State Park.

As GE and the EPA hammer out the details of the dredging plan over the next three years, federal and state archaeologists will be surveying the area to determine the extent of its buried cultural and historical resources.

By law, all federal hazardous- waste site cleanups must comply with the Historical Preservation Act, and archaeological research is a part of the process. But the Hudson poses special challenges.

"I'm going to scour the country for other projects, but I am at a loss to find one of this magnitude ... 40-plus miles of an area that has such a history and such a length of involvement," said John Vetter, chairman of the Adelphi University department of anthropology who has worked on numerous Superfund sites for the EPA.

Vetter said such surveys rarely, if ever, halt projects but can modify them depending on what is found.

Cost negotiations

The costs the federal government accrues while conducting the research will be part of future negotiations with GE. As part of the sampling agreement, GE's contractors will use sonar and analyze core samples to identify potential archaeological treasure.

More indirect effects such as the impact on views from historical sites, which could be spoiled by the dredging or the two sludge-treatment plants, also will be considered. Artifacts that cannot avoid being dredged may be excavated before the cleanup begins, Kuhn said.

Merrilyn Pulver, the Fort Edward town supervisor, said she wants to ensure that whatever is excavated remains in the town. She and other dredging opponents have made cultural resources one of their chief concerns.

Pro-dredging groups see the recent attention to cultural history as another stall tactic. "It's clearly a gambit," said Chris Ballantyne of Friends of a Clean Hudson. "This is a desperate attempt at delay."

Tim Havens, president of the anti-dredging group Citizen Environmentalists Against Sludge Encapsulation, said preserving the past has always been a concern.

"This area is very, very rich in history. It's been one of our concerns since the beginning," said Havens, who was one of 30 people to attend the meeting.

A preliminary report by the EPA issued with the dredging decision has already identified more than 300 historical sites. Starbuck said it was far from complete.

"It's really a matter of how much they do in advance to collect what they can out of the river," Starbuck said. "It's really going to have an impact."

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