Energy & Environment

Dredging Up Old Problems

Once pollutants settle into river or lake beds, governments confront tricky political and economic challenges to remove them.
by | September 2000

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Communities are learning that they still can protect the environment even if they don't clean up every last trace of pollution. Cities and counties around the country are now bringing fenced-off brownfields back into productive economic use by settling for less-than-total remediation. That approach is acceptable because governments have pledged to enforce legal controls to make sure that children will never be exposed to the dirt once industrial properties have been resurrected.

Things get a lot more complicated, however, when contaminants have rinsed off factory lots and seeped into rivers and harbors. Running water is a powerful and unpredictable force, and forecasting where it's taking polluted loads is, at best, problematic. Once pollutants settle into river or lakebed sediments, governments confront extraordinarily tricky political and economic challenges to remove them before they harm communities downstream. So far, neither politicians, pollution-control officials nor captains of industry have dealt with streambed contaminants with anything resembling resolute environmental policy.

In upstate New York, for instance, federal and state regulators have waffled for more than 20 years over what to do about poisonous polychlorinated biphenyls that General Electric Co. used to dump into the Hudson River. Between 1946 and 1977, GE's now-shuttered capacitor manufacturing factories at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York, released more than a million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson. The company had state permits to discharge the oily compounds, but scientists identified 40 hot spots where PCBs accumulated in the river bottom. Those concentrations pose a proven risk for humans who eat fish from the Hudson and are also an enduring danger to its ecosystem.

Attempts to remedy the riverbed threat have gotten mired down in murky political maneuvering. Former New York Governor Hugh L. Carey told the New York Times that during the 1970s, GE's chairman vowed to move 55,000 company jobs out of the state if New York regulators pushed too hard for an all-out riverbed cleanup. "That explains a lot of things" about why the Hudson is still contaminated, says Langdon Marsh, who tried to address the problem as New York's environmental protection commissioner during Governor Mario Cuomo's subsequent administration.

Such irresponsible actions by both state governments and big business compelled Congress to step in to impose national pollution standards. The public and private sectors have learned a lot since then, but neglectful attitudes from the past are still haunting industrial communities where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has interceded to order federally run cleanups. Responding to GE's PCB contamination in New York, EPA in 1984 declared 197 miles of the Hudson a Superfund site. On Montana's Clark Fork River, EPA is now debating how to handle copper, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals that washed down from Butte mines and accumulated behind a dam built in 1906 near Missoula. Meanwhile, Washington State officials are urging EPA to remove lead and zinc from Spokane River sediments as part of a massive Superfund cleanup at upstream mines in Idaho. In Oregon, EPA is moving to add the Portland harbor on the Willamette River to the federal cleanup list.

Nobody trusts that EPA's Superfund program can clean anything up in a timely fashion, however. GE officials have spent 16 years fighting a delaying action against the agency's proposal to order the company to dredge contaminated sediments from the Hudson riverbed. Not surprisingly, corporate executives, stockholders and employees prefer not to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for dredging operations, along with millions for damages to commercial fishing. What's more, biologists and geologists still are offering conflicting advice on whether or not it's safer to leave PCBs in the river and assume that new layers of silt will hold the chemicals in place as they deteriorate. That would be cheaper, but governments don't have the power to guarantee that rivers will let contaminants lie undisturbed while the danger slowly dwindles.

In the meantime, Marsh points out, "people would be denied use of the river for an unspecified period of time, at least for a generation." Marsh now directs Oregon's Environmental Quality Department, and he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a state-run Portland harbor cleanup to head off a federal Superfund listing. EPA has agreed, though, to make the state a full partner in the project, acknowledging that Oregon regulators already know the Willamette's problems and what correcting them will do for Pacific Northwest salmon, wildlife habitat and the region's water quality.

Such unprecedented federal-state cooperation promises a thorough--and quicker--cleanup. That's primarily because states such as Oregon are better prepared to get pollution matters settled than New York was 30 years ago.


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