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.