The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released for public comment its second review of the historic cleanup of PCB-contaminated sediment from the upper Hudson River.
The EPA review concludes that the Hudson River cleanup is working as designed and, while not yet protective, is expected to accomplish its long-term goal of protection of human health and the environment when the cleanup is completed.
EPA’s second five-year review is the culmination of an eleven-month evaluation process which included collecting new data, conducting an objective analysis of project activities and a quantitative analysis of all available fish, water and sediment data.
The more than 1000-page report includes a detailed technical assessment and various technical data evaluations as appendices. The five-year review acknowledges that as many as eight or more years of post-dredging fish data may be needed to establish, with a high degree of confidence, a long-term statistical trend in levels of PCBs in the fish.
The EPA’s two-part cleanup plan called for the targeted environmental dredging of approximately 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River between Fort Edward and Troy, NY, followed by a period of monitored natural recovery.
Dredging began in 2009 and was completed in 2015. It was one of the largest and most logistically complex environmental dredging projects ever undertaken in the U.S., and resulted in the removal of about 2.75 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment.
Approximately 310,000 pounds of PCBs were permanently removed from the river – twice the mass anticipated – representing an estimated 72 percent reduction in the overall mass of PCBs in the Upper Hudson River. The first five-year review for the site was conducted in 2012.
This second five-year review considered all available data, including all fish, water and sediment data collected over the past five years, but necessarily reflects only a single year of data about the post-dredging state of the river and fish. Because dredging was completed in 2015, the fish collected for sampling in both spring and fall 2016 were still affected by elevated PCBs levels during the dredging project.
The data collected since the last five-year review show that the results are generally consistent with what EPA expected. The 2016 fish data suggest that the fish have begun to recover from dredging impacts and are generally back to pre-dredging levels. However, the 2016 data alone are not sufficient to evaluate post-dredging trends.
“The early information that we have for sediment, water and fish is encouraging. In the years ahead, we will collect more data to identify long-term trends,” said Acting Regional Administrator Catherine McCabe. “While the project was designed to set the river on a course for recovery, we have always explained that the recovery will take many years. It is not possible for the fish to fully recover immediately after the conclusion of dredging.”
As expected, average PCB concentrations in fish in the Upper Hudson are declining but have not yet reached protective levels. When EPA made its cleanup decision in 2002, the agency predicted that it would take years after dredging is completed for PCB levels in fish to reach levels where the existing fish consumption advisories may begin to be relaxed, and decades before fish can safely be eaten frequently.
The sediment cleanup is now transitioning from the dredging phase of the project to a robust monitoring phase that will track the long-term recovery of the river over time to confirm that the cleanup is functioning as intended. This includes monitoring of sediment, fish, water, reconstructed habitats, and the caps that were placed in some of the areas of the river where PCBs remained.
If the EPA determines that the recovery is not occurring as expected, the EPA will evaluate next steps. The next five-year review is expected to be completed in 2022.
The next major component of the cleanup of the Hudson River PCBs Superfund site is now underway, and includes a comprehensive study of PCB contamination in low-lying areas of the Upper Hudson River that are subject to flooding, called the floodplains. Extensive soil sampling was conducted in 2016 and will continue in 2017.
As part of his continued effort to prioritize Superfund cleanups, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced last week the creation of a Superfund task force to provide recommendations within 30 days on how the EPA can streamline and improve the Superfund program.