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Will New York's Toxic Problem Ruin Texas' Water?

Texas will receive 81 train cars full of PCB-contaminated sediment from the Hudson River every four to five days for six months.
 
 
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One would be forgiven for not believing headlines last week stating that General Electric has finally started the process of dredging the Upper Hudson in an effort to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the river. Forgiven because it has been more than half a century since GE began dumping PCBs into the Hudson and decades since environmental organizations called attention to the problem. Last Monday the company reluctantly undertook what is said to be a six-year effort to dredge the river and remove the sediment, which will be carried by barge to a dewatering facility in Fort Edward. According to Reuters, the aim of the first phase of the project is to remove 265,000 cubic yards of sediment and 20,300 kilograms of PCBs. Phase II, if Phase II is reached, will be completed in 2015.

The Hudson River is 315 miles long and flows from the Adirondacks to the Upper New York Bay. Its source is said to be Lake Tear of the Clouds high up in the Adirondack Mountains, on the southwest slope of Mt. Marcy, New York's tallest peak. The tarn was discovered by the land surveyor Verplanck Colvin in 1872 who wrote:

"Far above the chilly waters of Lake Avalanche at an elevation of 4,293 feet lies summit water, a minute, unpretending, tear of the clouds -- as it were -- a lovely pool shivering in the breezes of the mountains and sending its limpid surplus through Feldspar Brook to the Opalescent River, the well-spring of the Hudson."

No one would ever consider dumping chemicals into Lake Tear of the Clouds. It's too far, the climb too long. But further downstream, as the river widens and meanders toward New York City, it evidently becomes easier.

For a thirty-year period, from 1947 to 1977, GE pumped some 1.3 million pounds of PCBs from manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards into the Hudson. PCBs, which were banned in the 1970s and are no longer produced in the United States accumulate over time in fish and other small organisms and may reach levels dangerous to human health. The EPA limit on PCBs is 0.0005 milligrams per liter of drinking water. 

The EPA studied PCB contamination of the Hudson as early as 1983. But it has taken more than two decades for the agency to force GE's hand and remove the contaminated sediment from the river. 

A New York Times editorial said the cleanup "was testimony to the power of sustained advocacy, and a tribute to everyone -- private citizens, environmental groups, scientists, politicians from both parties -- who had fought to make it happen." While that is all true it also seems to be testimony to the power of GE, America's industrial giant, to forestall, delay, and evade the efforts of citizens and activists who have called on the company to clean the river for three decades.

The process has been long and many environmental groups are hardly confident that GE will follow through on its commitment. In 2009, at the end of the first phase, an independent panel will review the results of the dredging and offer recommendations. The potential for delays and additional lawsuits has many worried. Riverkeeper attorney Rebecca Troutman said in a  press release that, "We are hopeful that the new EPA Administrator will follow this closely and minimize that possibility. We intend to do the same.

While the dredging of the Hudson has been claimed as a victory of sorts for environmentalists in New York, it has raised concerns in West Texas where the contaminated sediment will be sent. Environmentalists argue that use of the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site in Andrews, Texas could poison the Ogallala aquifer and are demanding an Environmental Impact Statement.

 
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