Messing With a Masterpiece: The State of Pollution in the Mid-Hudson Valley | Community Notebook | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Messing With a Masterpiece: The State of Pollution in the Mid-Hudson Valley 

Last Updated: 06/18/2013 10:24 pm


Imagine you have spent all your life working on one huge watercolor painting. Its size and scope and details are your life story. It includes expressions of your most ecstatic and tragic experiences, and is so unique that no one, including you, could ever make it again. But you must keep it in a studio where other people are working. By accident, someone smears oil paint on it. Someone else is careless and splatters black ink that seeps into the paper. Someone else is cutting mattes, certain your painting is not in the way—but it is. The scars of other people’s accidents and poor judgment has marred your masterpiece forever.

An unlikely story, yes, but it’s a metaphor for our region. The Hudson River Valley is a unique masterpiece of nature created over millennia. It has suffered a host of environmental catastrophes over the centuries and continues to do so. Some are small, others massive; some are accidental, others less innocent.

This article highlights several of the Hudson Valley’s environmental damage legacies and some of its ongoing environmental insults. Fortunately, many people and organizations in the private and public sectors are devoted to repairing the damage and preventing future catastrophes; that work will be the focus of a second article in next month’s issue of Chronogram.

The Superfund sagas
Ask anyone in the Northeast about environmental problems and they are likely to mention pcbs in the Hudson River—as well they should. This massive Superfund site encompasses 200 miles of the river whose sediments and life forms carry the evidence of three decades of pcb dumping by General Electric’s plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. Volumes of printed and electronic materials recount the story, which won’t be repeated here. But the update is that remediation of the damage from exposure to over 1.3 million pounds of pcbs is finally on the horizon, including GE-funded removal of 150,000 pounds of pcbs from the upper Hudson.
“There is still a long way to go before actual pcb removal begins,” says Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Action Director at Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. “We are very actively working on the precise way in which that will be done. The remedial design phase will take until about 2006, with the actual cleanup taking place from 2006 to 2012. It took thirty years to get epa to require GE to do it, and now it needs to be a world-class cleanup and not a sloppy mess.” Though GE promises to fulfill its Hudson River cleanup duties, it has also brought a legal case against epa challenging the constitutionality of the Superfund law in making private companies adhere to cleanup orders. That case got a new breath of life in March when last year’s dismissal of it was overturned.

Friends of a Clean Hudson, a coalition of 11 state, national, and regional groups that are monitoring the remediation process, has just released its second annual “Hudson River pcb Report Card,” which assesses the participation of key players toward accomplishing the goals specified by the epa’s Record of Decision on the Hudson pcb cleanup. Governor Pataki earned a “B” grade, the epa earned a “B+”, GE a “D,” and Congressman John Sweeney an “absent” for insufficient participation.1 A grade of “F” was given to local elected officials and legislators in Saratoga and Washington counties where dredging is meant to occur because of the “vocal and unrelenting opposition to the cleanup plan” of some (like Fort Edward’s Town Councilwoman Merrilyn Pulver) and a continued insistence that “living with a poisoned river somehow benefits those they are elected to represent.”

The Hudson River pcb problem is the most extensive Superfund site in our region, but there are many others. A Superfund site is, by epa definition, any land that “has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the epa as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.” There are 90 federal Superfund sites currently recognized in New York state, and the Hudson Valley is dotted with them.2

Ulster County has three federally recognized Superfund sites: the Hertel Landfill, Mohonk Road Industrial Plant, and Ellenville Scrap Iron and Metal. The 80-acre Hertel Landfill in the town of Plattekill was shut down in 1977 for repeatedly accepting waste it didn’t have a permit to receive. At least 50 pollutant-containing metal drums have been unearthed on the site. Ground and surface water are contaminated with iron and manganese and the soil is steeped in arsenic and chromium. Toxins have seeped into nearby wetlands, some of which have been bulldozed into the landfill mound, which has since been capped and fenced off.

The Mohonk Road Industrial Plant Superfund site in High Falls sprang from a septic tank, which for years collected the organic solvent waste of various industrial activities in a 43,000 square foot building. epa says there is “the potential for significant human exposure through inhalation and ingestion of vocs [volatile organic compounds] in contaminated groundwater” and that “soils below ground surface may pose a threat to construction workers if disturbed.” Over 70 homes and businesses that used to draw from the aquifer are using water filters, while millions of gallons of groundwater is extracted and cleaned, and a new water supply system is designed. In addition, thousands of tons of contaminated soil have been moved off to some other unfortunate piece of the planet.

The Ellenville Scrap Iron and Metal facility at 34 Cape Road, once a metal reclamation and battery recycling operation, is a 24-acre wasteland of automobile batteries, deteriorating drums, old tires, and a 40-foot embankment of construction and demolition debris. The contamination of surface water is the worst possible, according to a national ranking by the epa and includes pcbs, benzenes, and phthalates, all of which are designated by epa as carcinogenic and toxic to several organ systems. Some have been detected in the nearby Beer Kill, a fishery and recreational stream, and adjacent residential property. Dozens of other toxins and carcinogens are listed as present at the site.

There are four federally recognized Superfund sites in Dutchess County. The most publicized is the Shenandoah Road site in the Hopewell Junction area of the town of East Fishkill. An aquifer supplying water to approximately 230 homes is contaminated with vocs like pce (tetrachloroethylene) and tce (trichloroethylene), which are extremely toxic and suspected carcinogenic chemicals used as solvents and degreasers in a variety of industrial activities (and in a wide array of household products like cleaners, paints, insecticides, and many more). According to the epa, the source of these chemicals at Shenandoah was a highly contaminated septic tank and several waste pits on the property of an “industrial facility” (epa wording) at 7 East Hook Cross Road. A furious citizen’s group, Concerned Residents of East Fishkill, blames IBM’s nearby East Fishkill facility, and has compiled some disturbing accusations of dumping, spills, and improper soil removals by IBM at that site and others around the country.3

 

Steve Cole, IBM’s Regional Manager of External Affairs and Media Relations, said in a phone interview that the Concerned Residents misrepresent the issue. “A former contractor in East Fishkill, Jack Manne, Inc., operated a ‘chip rack’ cleaning facility at 7 East Hook Cross Road from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Contamination allegedly occurred from the Manne operation disposing of chemicals directly into the septic system”—something that IBM had no control over. (Concerned Residents says Manne, in an interview with epa, denied even operating the facility.) “A total of 101 water filtration systems have been installed at homes,” Cole continued, “and IBM is funding their operation and maintenance. A Work Plan to study groundwater conditions in the entire area has been prepared by IBM and is currently under review by epa. IBM will fund the installation of a permanent water supply for the Shenandoah Road area and will continue to cooperate fully with the epa in all aspects of the Shenandoah work.” However, the epa passed over the site as one of the new federal Superfund sites, meaning that their contribution to further remediation could be limited to a mere $2.

Dutchess County has three other Superfund sites. One is the Jones Sanitation site, 57 rural acres that served from 1956-1979 as a dump for septic and industrial wastes, including toxic metals, solvents, pigments, phenols, and VOCs like methylene chloride, chloroform, and tce. An estimated 77,000 gallons of liquid industrial waste were poured into the land every month for seven of those years, according to epa data. A subsequent owner “excavated the disposal pits and piled the contents on the ground without a liner.” About a thousand people live within a mile of the site, and wetlands cross the property.

Leaking into the landscape
You get the picture. But federal Superfund sites are just a portion of the pollution woes of our region. There are serious land and groundwater contaminations that have yet to get the “big S” designation. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (dec) has an Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Remedial Program (also called the state Superfund program), which oversees the identification, investigation, and cleanup of sites where “consequential amounts of hazardous waste may exist.” A registry that must be updated annually of such sites is available to the public. (See the sidebar for entries on this list for the Mid-Hudson region.)

The state’s goal in dealing with these sites is, “wherever possible, to bring responsible parties forward to remedy the problems they have caused. When responsible parties cannot be located or lack resources, Federal Superfund is the first public funding source which the State seeks to use. If neither of these funding sources are available or if legal action against the responsible parties is unsuccessful, the State will fund the work using the Hazardous Waste Remedial Fund [often referred to as the New York State Superfund] or the 1986 Bond Act.” The epa had listed and evaluated 1,765 sites in all of New York State as of March 31, 2003 and determined that 985 required/require remediation. Financial commitments for these cleanups totaled about $5.32 billion, with 63 percent coming from the polluters, 25 percent from New York State, and 12 percent from the federal government.

There are other sources of land and water contamination that won’t be on the federal or state lists—yet. Some toxic sites are unknown until someone’s drinking water goes a bit off. Joel Tyner, Dutchess Country Legislator for Rhinebeck/Clinton, has tirelessly been pursuing cases of mtbe contamination in water in the Mid-Hudson Valley. He helped research and publicize the Hyde Park mtbe contamination of residential well water in the Greenbush region, due to a gasoline station leak.4 Tyner has also scoured the dec’s database of reported hazardous spills and identified 27 incidents of mtbe-containing spills/leaks in Dutchess County over the past two decades, 22 of which affected groundwater. And that’s just in one county. Tyner says there are 306 mtbe spills listed for New York State’s dec Region 3 (counties of Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Westchester, and Ulster).

“There should be annual testing of gas stations’ underground tanks for leaks by the Dutchess County Health Department,” he urges. “Rockland and Westchester Counties do this already. And drinking water should be tested for mtbe whenever property is resold.” Dutchess County’s Board of Health is currently discussing an amendment to do so. Fortunately, a law signed in 2000 by Governor Pataki makes the sale, importation, or dispensing of mtbe-containing gasoline an offense carrying a fine of up to $10,000, starting this year. But mtbe is a highly water-soluble toxin that is resistant to degradation, so it easily infiltrates groundwater and contaminates aquifers.

The dec’s spills database is a fascinating and disturbing list of the many times someone must have said “oops”.5 For Dutchess County, there are actually 366 reported spills of hazardous materials in the past 12 months alone—mostly of petroleum products from gas stations or of fuel oil. Some are cleaned up to dec specifications (designated as “closed”) but most are not. They include things like a gallon of antifreeze, or 7 gallons of gasoline due to “tank failure” at a Hyde Park gas station, or 30 gallons at another Hyde Park gas station. Ulster County’s list includes only 18 reported spills, like the 500 gallons of fuel oil due to a tank overfill at 1000 Mountain Rest Road back in April of 2003 (not closed), and various other tank or “equipment” failures at residences or gas stations.

Pollution comes with the territory
There are many industrial facilities that release toxic waste materials as part of their routine activities. Some of these are major employers in the region and their activities are an economic support. They are allowed toxic releases of chemicals into water, air, and soil, but must report them to the epa. Environmental Defense Fund’s Scorecard lists facilities in your county that are required to report any releases of the 650 hazardous chemicals on epa’s Toxics Release Inventory (tri) list.6 The edf Scorecard thoroughly explains both the merits and limitations of the data. It also ranks facilities as to their potential health impacts by taking into account the biological effects of the chemical releases.

 

 

In Dutchess County, for example, the IBM facility in Hopewell Junction, which develops, manufactures, and tests semiconductor products, vastly outpaces the other polluters in the county (five others are listed) for total tri releases, putting it in the 90th percentile of dirtiest facilities in the nation. Those releases went largely into water and as “off-site transfers.” The cancer risk score attributable to the specific tri chemicals released is only in the 20th percentile, but non-cancer risk in the 70th percentile.

To be fair, it should be noted that this same IBM plant received New York State Governor’s Award in 2004 for its pollution prevention/waste minimization and energy conservation steps, like a reduction in pce air emissions from 22 to 0.2 tons per year, elimination of pce from manufacturing operations, and more effective treatment of heavy metal wastewater that generates 75 percent less sludge.

There are also problems with agriculture—a key asset in our region, but also a source of land and water pollution. Animal waste from livestock facilities and pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers from farming enter the watersheds and can alter or outright destroy natural ecosystems, as well as infuse land and water with chemicals that are increasingly implicated in cancer and other illnesses. Citizens are taking the lead in collecting information about cancer cases and possible correlation with agriculture. In the meantime, Governor Pataki in 2002 designated $6 million statewide as part of his Agricultural Environmental Management program, specifically to prevent and reduce agricultural runoff. Ulster County was awarded about $47,000 to assess 60 farms in the Esopus Creek watershed, Columbia County received about $500,000 to implement multiple Best Management Practices on three large livestock farms in the Lower Hudson River Estuary watershed, and Orange County will put about $135,000 to use implementing barnyard water management systems and other best management practices on 34 farms in the Wallkill River watershed.

Brownfields: down but not out
Brownfields are defined by epa as “abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial or commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived contamination.” That’s a mouthful, meaning: a place that can’t be used because potentially toxic materials have been left around. They are of concern to the epa (and the dec) for the “economic or social threat” they represent, because they are too fouled to use without cleanup, and “prevent development and therefore stifle local economies.”

It’s easy to imagine a few brownfield sites are lurking in our area. By current assessment, however, there are no fewer than 185 locations under scrutiny as potential brownfields in the Mid-Hudson Valley (Ulster, Orange, and Dutchess Counties). But the good news is that success stories of old, abandoned, degraded industrial sites that have been transformed in vibrant economic boons are plentiful.7 And New York State provides reimbursement grants to municipalities for up to 90 percent of their investigation and remediation costs, through a $200 million Environmental Restoration (or Brownfields) Fund, part of the $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996.

In addition, the mid-Hudson Valley region was tapped in 1998 by the epa to be one of the nation’s 76 Brownfields Assessment Demonstration Pilot programs and receive $200,000 seed money to help get local action going. The program in our area is called the Ulster County Brownfields Pilot Project, even though it encompasses the cities of Beacon, Kingston, Middletown, Newburgh, Port Jervis, and Poughkeepsie. Within this area, 81 brownfield properties are clustered in three locations: Roundout Creek in Kingston, Quassaick Creek in Newburgh/New Windsor, and the Southern Waterfront Industrial Area in Poughkeepsie. It’s up to local alliances to figure out the nitty-gritty of screening of sites, ranking priorities, educating citizens, capturing funding, and taking action.

Public and private entities have come together (as the Mid-Hudson Valley Brownfields Partnership) to hammer out a plan to make the best of epa’s interest and to get these sites back into safe usage. And many of the development projects in our area involve remediation of brownfield areas as part of their overall design. (More on that in Chronogram’s next issue.)

Hazards in the air
If you lived in a large metropolitan area before the Clean Air Act, or have visited one of the world’s most polluted cities, you know that really bad air pollution can look like a forest fire has been at work, spreading a murky, yellowish-brown shroud that erases views of hills and anything else more than a few miles away. So it’s something of a shock to hear that the Hudson Valley is at the top of the scale for hazardous air pollution.

Dutchess and Orange Counties ranked in the 90th percentile—the highest category—in a national comparison of cancer risk due to air pollutants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Scorecard. Ulster and Sullivan Counties ranked in the 80th percentile. Diesel exhaust, which is a mixture of over 50 hazardous substances, is blamed for most of this cancer risk. Its source: vehicles and machinery that use diesel fuel (excluding those using biodiesel): trucks, buses, ships, airplanes, trains, and agricultural and construction equipment. Scorecard’s assessment of other airborne hazardous chemicals not specifically linked to cancer but to respiratory or other illnesses put Dutchess and Ulster Counties in the 90th and 80th percentiles, respectively.

This news is bad enough, but it isn’t the whole story. It doesn’t address the huge additional problem of air pollutants wafting in from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. Smokestacks from these plants spew a broad range of toxic substances into the air, like sulfur dioxide, a major contributor to acid rain and hazardous to lungs, and nitrogen oxides, which generate ground-level ozone by reacting with other airborne molecules in the presence of sunlight. Acid rain is a famed Northeastern problem that is altering entire terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Ozone is linked to a number of short- and long-term respiratory and visual problems. Dutchess and Orange counties had ozone levels in the “severe” categories according to a 2002 evaluation by the American Lung Association.8

Power plants fueled by coal and oil also release mercury, heavy metals (arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, nickel), dioxin, furans, and pcbs—many are known carcinogens. Particulates also are released by coal-burning plants and are increasingly recognized as a serious health hazard. And while Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is making great legal strides in reining in air pollution coming from outside our region, there are two coal-burning electricity-generating plants right here that were exempt from the Clean Air Act’s tougher emission standards. Older plants weren’t expected to be chugging along much longer, but they are.

The Danskammer plant outside of Newburgh has come under epa scrutiny for lax permit requirements (through the state dec) with regards to monitoring of pollution emissions. The same plant, while under previous ownership by Central Hudson, racked up numerous violations for excessive volume and density of smoke emissions. There is good news about the coal-burning Lovett plant in Tompkins Cove (Rockland County), though: it has been forced by a legal case brought by Eliot Spitzer to install equipment that will reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by at least 75 percent and 40 percent, respectively, by 2008. It’s an especially satisfying settlement because it foiled the plant’s attempt to ignore making improvements in pollution emissions (which are called for by the Clean Air Act when any substantial construction is undertaken by an old plant) by calling its modifications “routine maintenance.”

Spitzer said in a press release, “This agreement, which we hope will be a model for settlement of other in-state cases, demonstrates the strength of our case, the state’s willingness to pursue violations on its own, and our commitment to dealing fairly and evenly with all power plant operators.”

“We’ve come a long way in cleaning the air of certain pollutants,” says Christine Vanderlan of Environmental Advocates of New York, “but there currently is no limit on the amount of carbon dioxide or mercury that coal plants like the Danskammer and Lovett plants produce. To really solve ongoing problems like acid rain (which affects the Hudson Highlands among other areas of the state) mercury contamination, smog [ozone], and global warming, we need a tougher Clean Air Act. New Yorkers need to keep pushing Congress to enact strict, comprehensive power plant cleanup legislation.”

A more recent source of air pollution coming under intense scrutiny is waste incineration. There are two “waste-to-energy” incinerators in the Hudson Valley: Dutchess County’s Resource Recovery Facility in Poughkeepsie and the Charles Point Resource Recovery Facility in Peekskill. Incinerators save on (but don’t eliminate) landfill space and cogenerate electricity through steam production, but they release extremely dangerous compounds into the air. It shouldn’t be a surprise that burning a vast array of materials is going to generate a diversity of pollutants, and citizens’ and environmental groups are calling for a reconsideration of these facilities.9

Looking past the PCBs
pcbs in the Hudson have somewhat overshadowed other serious ongoing or emerging river pollution problems. Stormwater runoff that washes surface pollutants (like vehicle fuel, oil, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and cleaning agents) directly into streams and rivers. Aging and over-burdened sewer systems like that of New Paltz and regions of Kingston are failing, partly due to the volume of runoff that periodically floods them and which can spill raw sewage directly into the river. With economic revitalization and new construction projects blossoming around the valley, open lands that once absorbed and filtered runoff are being covered with impervious roads, parking lots, and buildings. Developing on or too close to wetlands magnifies the environmental injury because they are complex ecosystems of limited abundance. Plus, wetlands of less than 12.4 acres have neither federal nor state protection because of a regulatory gap created by the Supreme Court.

Thermal pollution of the Hudson River from the water-cooling systems of power plants is a huge issue for the aquatic life of the river. Andy Mele, Executive Director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., explains: “During times of peak power use, power plants withdraw five billion gallons a day from biologically rich areas of the tidal Hudson River north of New York City, and kill the overwhelming majority of life in this massive volume, including billions of fish per year. Indian Point is by far the worst culprit, withdrawing more than two billion gallons of river water each day. That water is alive with planktonic fish eggs and larvae, virtually all of which die due to thermal shock and stress while passing through the plant. The discharge plume of hot water further distresses river life due to the low oxygen saturation of warm waters. A scientist who took an infrared plume photograph analyzed it for signs of life, and found none.”

The Lovett coal-burning power plant in Tompkins Cove is another of the once-through cooling system power plants. Riverkeeper, after years of pressure on the plant to reduce kills of aquatic life, succeeded in 2003 in convincing the dec to require comprehensive monitoring of a fabric screen that the plant was using to filter incoming water. dec agreed that the plant must “demonstrate an exclusion rate of 80 percent of the organisms subject to entrainment, the first time it has mandated such a large reduction in fish kills at a once-through plant.”

Besides the quantifiable chemical and biological damage that pollution can cause, some primarily offend the senses. A quiet afternoon stroll along the Hudson River is impossible in the months favored by recreational boaters and jet skiers, as thundering motors zoom by every few minutes (leaving behind a petroleum waste residue). In hunting season, a single rifle blast skips over the water for miles and echoes off the river’s shores like a thunderclap. The age-old, low-tech problem of litter is getting worse in the age of plastics and disposables. Almost anything imaginable can be found floating in the river or collecting in shallows, among the rocks, and on beaches. Hikes in the forests and along mountain ridges are interrupted by noise pollution from increasingly well-traveled roads. Visual pollution from cell towers and of inappropriately sited buildings and homes mar the terrain. Some of the visual damage is old, some is new, and more is promised.

The Hudson Valley is a world-renowned living masterpiece. The region will continue to be under threat of environmental degradation as population grows and an economic resurgence takes hold. The story of people and organizations working to blend environmental protection and economic viability will be in next month’s Chronogram.

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