Hudson PCB sampling begins

Study to map out most contaminated part of river for dredging

October 20, 2002|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

MOREAU, N.Y. - The water was perfectly still, reflecting the autumn leaves dangling overhead. A mallard duck fished tail-side-up for food near the river's shore.

Nature, at least, was oblivious to the work under way on the Hudson River, as contractors for the General Electric Co. pierced the most contaminated stretch of river bottom in order to map out what portions will be dredged.

For at least some of the people living along the river, the activity on display made the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's $500 million dredging plan real. The sampling is the first work on the river conducted in preparation for the cleanup since dredging was proposed in December 2000.

"Everybody has sort of settled back and said the decision has been made and let's get the work done," said Robert Foster, owner of Champlain Canal Tour Boats in Saratoga. Foster, who lives in Schuylerville, ferried two groups of reporters and news photographers out to sampling boats working in the Thompson Island Pool.

The pool is a six-mile stretch of the upper reaches of the river that contains half of the Hudson's PCB hot spots. 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.

Behind schedule

Since the $15 million sampling program started recently, months behind schedule, 146 cores - cylinders of river bottom 2 to 5 feet in length - have been extracted from this portion of the river. The waterway is surrounded by mobile homes, farmland and hazardous sites containing PCB-tainted sediment dredged up by the state 30 years ago for navigation.

Over the next two years, 2,000 cores will be taken from the pool, which is slated for the most intensive dredging along the 40-mile stretch of river that will be cleaned up. Another 4,000 will be pulled from Schuylerville, south to the Troy Dam.

And while most will be tested for PCBs, John Haggard, GE's project manager for the Hudson River, said other sediment will be analyzed for size and other physical information needed to plan the dredging project.

"This is the most methodical sampling that has ever been done on the river," Haggard said. "These are targeted areas ... with a high likelihood to be removed. These cores will tell you where the dredge will cut and how deep."

Five boats - including three barges named Hudson, Lawrence and Champlain - launch daily at 8 a.m. from two 60-foot long docks on West River Road, guided to spots in the river by maps, fluorescent orange buoys, and onboard satellite positioning systems.

Generators running the coring machines sound like a large lawn mower as three workers on each vessel mount the metal cylinders onto a small crane that lowers them into the water. Motorized vibration helps push the core through the river sediment.

Sampling process

After just minutes underwater, the core slowly emerges. A worker wearing blue plastic gloves attaches a cap to its bottom so no sediment escapes into the water.

The cores are stored in coolers until the boats are unloaded at dusk. They are then driven to GE's Fort Edward plant by van. There, 13 laboratory scientists slice them into four pieces, mix up the mud, and send them to analytical labs in five states.

GE receives the results in 10 days. By the docks one recent day was a clue of what they might find. Eight cores sat in a tall blue cooler affixed with a sticker that read: "Caution: Contains PCBs. A toxic environmental contaminant requiring special handling and disposal."

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