Hudson River PCB Dredging: Hearings and Injunctions May Be Imminent

April 14th may have been EPA’s last chance to avert legislative hearings, judicial injunctions, and delay of Hudson Dredging Phase 2, scheduled to commence this month (May). EPA must justify its Phase 2 plan, especially in light of the evident failure of Phase 1. To do this, EPA held a public meeting in Fort Edward on 14 April, led by GE, to explain why the Agency and GE think that resumed dredging can be and should be implemented. GE and EPA had much to explain and, these days, much public opposition to overcome. They were unable to make an affirmative showing, however, that continued dredging will be safe and beneficial within a reasonable time frame.

Why dredge if benefit comes, at best, only decades later? The latest GE estimates show that, if just five percent of sediment is released back to the river at the ‘dredgehead’, dredging will require 46 years to match the effectiveness of simply doing nothing. That is, no benefit can be expected until the year 2057 at the earliest, optimistically assuming no delays and no mobilization of PCB sediments other than resuspension. See the chart to appreciate this inconvenient truth (click on it to enlarge).

Will EPA consider all of sediment mobilization in Phase 2, or just ‘resuspension’ as in Phase 1? EPA must draw a clear distinction between PCB sediment ‘resuspension’ vs. ‘mobilization’. Dredge-disturbed sediment is mobile in the sense that it can be and will be scoured from the river bottom during high-flow events such as storms, and will enter river water, ecosystems, and air. EPA justified dredging because an immeasurably tiny fraction of PCB-tainted sediments remained mobile despite decades of natural burial, but in Phase 1 the Agency virtually ignored massively greater dredge-disturbance of sediments.

To quantify sediment mobilization in Phase 1, EPA required GE to measure only sediment that was ‘resuspended’ in the water far away (miles) from dredge platforms. The vast majority of sediment dropped back to the river bottom, however, does not appear as resuspended material in samples of water taken far away from the action, but it will spread to downstream areas months to years later. Thus, in 50 years EPA may find the river in much the same condition from dredging today that it was in 50 years ago from PCB disposal into the river by GE. That’s a half-century setback. In the unrealistically optimistic case that dredging will achieve the same result in 46 years as natural burial achieved without dredging in roughly the same time frame, then dredging will achieve no net benefit, not in 46 years, and not ever. The technical term for this is ‘never’.

How do EPA and GE intend to limit sediment mobilization in Phase 2? More than half of dredge-disturbed sediment remained in the river in Phase 1. Will the Agency simply limit resuspension to just two percent, or five percent, at the ‘dredgehead’ in Phase 2? Indeed, EPA’s HUDTOX modeling predicted that mobilization at the dredgehead would be so great as to be unacceptable. No problem: in justifying dredging, EPA (according to its own website) simply suppressed these modeling runs. Instead, EPA modeled ‘resuspension’ 1000 meters (over a half mile) downstream, a distance requiring months to years for the preponderance of sediments to traverse via bottom scouring during high flow events. Under EPA’s carefully designed environmental monitoring protocols for Phase 1, GE measured resuspension, not 1000 meters downstream of dredges, but five to seven miles downstream, where massive sediment mobilization at the dredgehead would be impossible to detect even if it occurred (which, now we know, it did).

Will EPA and GE measure, or just model, sediment mobilization at the dredgehead? EPA’s history of suppressing modeling results in favor of more favorable modeling results raises the question of how the Agency might confirm in Phase 2 that it succeeded in limiting resuspension to within, say, two percent at the dredgehead. The 14-April meeting provided an opportunity for GE and EPA to tell the public whether (and how) it will monitor mobilization at the dredgehead, or whether (and how) it will back-calculate mobilization. Or, will EPA continue to just monitor ‘resuspension’, based upon monitoring miles downstream as it did in Phase 1?

Neither GE nor EPA addressed these critical issues at the 14-April meeting. EPA’s assumptions, therefore, must be scrutinized to assure that they will achieve the results they claim to be realistic, and scrutinize the applicable Phase 2 engineering standards to assure that Phase 2 environmental monitoring will be sufficient to document the results relative to the goals. In Phase 1 they were not. Finally, if EPA will monitor mobilization only via ‘resuspension’, then Phase 2 results will not be monitored in a manner that can detect problems in the near term and avert them in the long term. Instead, as in Phase 1, problems will be evident only from retrospective signs of success or failure, such as measurements of PCB levels in ecosystems and the tissues of fish, turtles, and other river organisms.

Now the rubber meets the road… will EPA rise to the challenge of showing affirmatively that Phase 2 of the dredging project will be safe and effective, or will the Agency just require GE to move forward without regard to the evident risks? Will mayors and supervisors of river towns seek judicial injunctions to require EPA to make an affirmative showing of safety and benefit before proceeding? Will elected representatives in State Government and Congress request hearings on EPA actions to assure that they are justified by safety and effectiveness before they can be undertaken? Will members of the public, in northern communities affected now and in downstream communities in Westchester County and New York City which will be affected soon, demand that their elected leaders rise to the challenge of protecting them, or risk being removed from office when next up for election? Now the policy rubber meets the scientific road… with, so far, stultifying friction.