The Hudson River: A Local Landmark Or A Toxic Waste Dump?

Its not called the ‘America’s Rhine’ for nothing. The sheer beauty and presence of the Hudson River personifies the nature of the inhabitants around it. The Hudson River has its storied past and a bountiful future if maintained properly. In recent years, the river has had its low-points after some harsh pollution outbursts by many of the community’s larger companies. However, the necessary steps towards revival are being taken and over time, the river won’t only be just a pretty face.

Where it is now

For Mercy students attending the Dobbs Ferry Campus, seeing the Hudson River on a regular basis is a common occurrence. Most students see this massive body of water up close and personal as they wait for the train at the Ardsley-on the-Hudson station or peek out of their classroom window by the baseball field parking lot.

PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens (cancer causers) and are linked to other negative health effects such as low birth weight for infants, thyroid disease, and learning, memory, and immune system disorders. PCBs in the river sediment also affect fish and other wildlife.

“The biggest problems with PCBs are that they are heavier than water, and like an oil, they separate. Now that they are buried by years of sedimentary action on the riverbed, it may be dangerous to extract them from the bottom,” Gironda explained.

The major risk from PCBs to the Hudson is from the potential for accumulation of PCBs in the human body through consuming contaminated fish.

Ciani explains “Toxins like mercury, PCBs, and Dioxins precipitate downstream and over time they solidify. These dangerous chemicals then drop to the riverbed.”

Although this wildlife is in as much danger as human beings are, they do recuperate over time. “Fish can regenerate and come back to regular form, as do plants, which can slowly begin to grow back because they are highly adaptable creatures,” said Ciani. “But today, you can definitely find some mutated fish in that river.”

But in order for this safe cycle of life to be restored, their natural habitats need to be replenished.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the General Electric Company discharged potentially 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river from 1947 to 1977 through two capacitor manufacturing plants located in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York.

Yet environmentalists and Hudson River activists maintain that there is hope to restoring the river to prominence.

Where it all began

The Wisconsin Ice Sheet originally formed the Hudson River. As the ice pushed and carved its way down, it created massive depth, and sand and gravel shore lines emerged into beautiful cliff sides, some of which is the Palisades today.

The river itself may be pleasing to the eye, but would it be smart to drink or take a swim in the river voluntarily?

Mercy College professor of biology Mario Ciani answered, “Personally, I wouldn’t swim in the river. But people do still fish and do other activities inside of it.”

But that’s not to say that things aren’t improving.

James Gironda, a hydrogeologist for the company Hanson Van Vleet portrays, “The Hudson River is a lot cleaner today than it was only a few years ago, in terms of bacteria counts especially. But I wouldn’t want to rely on the Hudson for fish for my family.”

The current state of the Hudson River is heavily polluted with of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) that can cause serious health risks to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems of the human body. Yet as Gironda alluded to, the river is doing tentatively better than in the past century.

PCBs have a similar chemical composition to other members of the organochlorine family, such as dioxins and furans, among the most potent toxins known to mankind. The Hudson River has been contaminated with these PCBs along its 315-mile radius, which stretches from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City.

The Hudson River inhabits thousands of different organisms. Every year, fish migrate to the Hudson, along with birds and other wildlife. Every April the striped bass, perhaps the river’s most popular game fish, swims to the river from its warmer waters to spawn. Other fish in the river include bluefish, eel, and large and small mouth bass.

The Hudson River is approximately 315 miles long and originates from Lake Tear of the Clouds at Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks. It is separated into three sections: the lower half of the river is salt water, the middle section (below Poughkeepsie) is a fjord, which is a mix of salt and fresh water, and the upper part of the river consists primarily of fresh water only.

The Hudson River was discovered in 1609 by English explorer Henry Hudson. He was sent to the new territories after being hired by the Dutch India Trading Company, and on Sept 12, 1609 his ship, the Half Moon, anchored off Manhattan Island.

The pollution era that hit the Hudson River vigorously in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s has often been attributed to companies such as General Electric for dumping massive amounts of PCBs into the river, causing threatening effects to the fish and wildlife in and around the river. PCBs come in 209 chemical mixtures and are usually used in electrical equipment, newsprint, caulking compounds, and carbonless copy paper.

GE’s two factories along the Hudson River near Hudson Falls have contaminated about 200 miles of the river, all the way to the New York Harbor. GE was accused by the EPA of dumping approximately one million PCBs into the river for over 30 years.

Currently, people are cautioned not to eat too many fish from the Hudson River. During the late 1970’s and 80’s, commercial fishing was closed in the river, and GE was told by the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) in 1989 to have 250,000 pounds of PCBs dredged from the Hudson.

GE is no stranger to environmental criticisms, as the Political Economy research institute stated it was the fourth largest air polluter in the nation. In 1999, it spent $250,000 million to clean up the Housatonic River, which runs through Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The EPA criticized GE’s plan to clean up the Hudson in 2003 by stating “it did not provide for adequate protection of public health and the environment.”

Since 1976, high levels of PCBs found in various fish species in and around the Hudson have led New York State to close many recreational and commercial fisheries and to issue advisories restricting the consumption of fish caught in the river.

The Hudson River is a valiant source of fresh drinking water to New York City and its surrounding counties. The Hudson Valleys hold two reservoir systems (Catskill and Delaware) that together provide 1.4 billion gallons of water everyday to about nine million people in New York City, Westchester County, and parts of Putnam, Orange, and Ulster Counties.

The Cleanup Process

Since discharging PCBs over the course of three decades, GE has successfully removed 139 tons of PCBs from near the Hudson Falls plant site.

GE has also since rehabilitated an abandoned paper mill near the Hudson Falls plant into a system of wells to recover PCBs before they can reach the river and constructed a water treatment facility at Hudson Falls that has treated more than 153 million gallons of water.

To date, 5,103 gallons of PCBs have been recovered and removed from the Hudson River.

Ciani claims the reason why companies like GE were able to dump this chemical was because there was no fear of repercussions. “Years ago, guidelines for these companies were very lax. These industries were able to dump without many restrictions. Its not like it is today.”

To evaluate the efficiency of GE’s program, engineers sample Upper Hudson water. GE’s investment in research and clean-up projects on the Hudson River now exceeds $200 million.

On Jan 25, 2008 the EPA completed the final step in the approval process for the design of ‘Phase One’ of the Hudson River dredging program.

Dredging is an excavation operation in shallow seas or fresh water areas with the purpose of gathering up bottom sediments and disposing of them at a different location.

‘Phase One’ encompasses the construction of facilities necessary to process and transport sediments to be dredged from the river as well as the first year of the dredging program and the habitat replacement and reconstruction program for those areas dredged during the phase.

The Adaptive Management Plan (AMP) will guide and help to achieve habitat reconstruction goals in the Upper Hudson. This approval of the entire ‘Phase One’ design triggers a schedule for GE to complete procurement of dredging and habitat reconstruction contracts. These contracts are expected to be awarded by this upcoming summer.



In the agreement GE and the EPA settled upon, the EPA has required GE to reduce exposure to PCBs in four general areas along the Upper Hudson River where elevated levels of PCBs in floodplain soils could potentially present an unacceptable risk to public health and the environment.



The cleanup work, expected to begin later this year, will be performed by GE on approximately a dozen public and private properties in the towns of Fort Edward, Northumberland, and Greenwich and in the village of Schuylerville.

The EPA will monitor the work and will be reimbursed by GE for the efforts. The work to cleanup the site has been further divided into the Upper Hudson River, which runs from Hudson Falls to the Federal Dam at Troy and the Lower Hudson River, which runs from the Federal Dam at Troy to the southern tip of Manhattan at the Battery in New York City.

For purposes of this project, the EPA further divided the Upper Hudson River area into three main sections known as River Section 1, River Section 2, and River Section 3.

The ability to apply scientific research and technology towards obtaining information that may improve understanding of the watershed and the Hudson itself has fostered greater understanding and management of rivers and estuaries for the benefit of public health.

Thus, Ciani sees the restoration of the ecosystem as the crucial element of a long process. Although the Hudson River has been targeted for epic cleanup efforts that have succeeded in many respects, the continued plans to dredge up dangerous chemicals, including PCBs from its bed, have been met with skepticism that matches the enthusiasm of the proponents of the cleanup.

The efforts of environmental crusaders have helped to detoxify the water, but they have also invigorated those who see the resources of the EPA and GE strained by the undertaking. This effort underscores not only the potential success of environmentally guided efforts, but the corporate backlash and public mistrust that has become commonplace when government agencies assert their power.

Where it is going?

Understanding the past is essential, but preparing for the future is crucial. The Hudson River and most citizens around “‘The Great Mohegan” are ready for change, ready for the river to flourish as it did years and years ago.

Although companies like GE have polluted this once prolific river into a hazardous body of water, the river is making the turnaround back to stardom.

“I see the Hudson a lot cleaner 25 years from now,” stated Ciani. “The river will be definitely improved as far as toxin and carcinogen levels are concerned.”

Ciani conveys that a negative synergistic effect in the future is dangerous.

Chemicals like PCBs and mercury can synergize or fuse together to create a problem for the environment and ecosystem.

He points out that this negative synergistic effect will also “…only amplify the toxic effect.”

Although Ciani sees the river improving in the future, Gironda wants more concrete signs and answers.

“Until fool-proof technology is invented that can guarantee no PCBs will enter the water, it is not advisable to dredge them up, even under EPA supervision,” Gironda stated.

In order to preserve the Hudson and its estuaries, Gironda believes, “The engineering of any new construction that affects the watershed has to be carefully integrated into the existing ecosystem. The environmental impact of new homes and the hardware that makes them comfortable has to be evaluated, and in some cases this will mean that development becomes impossible.”

Sometime in the upcoming summer or early 2009, the river will undergo heavy cleansing activities that will cost millions in dollars in the years to come, but Ciani says Westchester’s waters won’t be the first to be purified.

“We (Westchester) may end up with more polluted water because dredged up toxins appear and travel in the water. Water dilutes very well and these toxins move downstream. But that’s the process needed to be taken in order to get the entire river back in shape.”

Ciani also said that it may take years, maybe decades, for this project to really jumpstart. He also explained, “If GE can’t pay for this project immediately, it may come out of the taxpayers pockets.”

Even though the money may end up being a predicament and the time and manpower scarce, Ciani is optimistic.

“Honestly, the future is definitely bright in years to come, but it’s going to take time. We need to take a step back before we take a step forward in this process.”