You have to believe in evolution because it has happened in the Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod) in the Hudson River in New York State. The bottom feeding fish have evolved in about 20 to 50 generations to be immune to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) with new DNA and smaller hearts not beating properly, according to the National Geographic News and based on the February 18th online issue of “Science.” What are the PCBs doing to the humans who have been eating those fish, growing their food in gardens of contaminated soil at their homes beside the Hudson, drinking water from their wells, and swimming in the river?
PCBs are man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons and were used in hundreds of industries beginning in 1929 and banned in 1979. Because they are chemically stable, non-flammable, have a high boiling point and good electrical insulating properties, they were mainly used in electrical insulation. They do not break down so now a 200 mile section of the Hudson River is one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States.
In September 2012, this writer was driven with cousins to the river to see the dredging equipment removing PCBs from the Hudson next to the garden on land their family has owned for decades. She took swimming lessons with other local children in Schuylerville, NY in the Hudson back in the 1950s, but some days lessons were delayed or canceled due to lots of yellow and white foamy “stuff” floating down the river. The children were told that the nearby paper mills had discharged at that time.
Fishermen have eaten fish from the river hundreds of years since the time when only the Indians lived in the region. There used to be oyster, sturgeon, shad and lots of striped bass in the Hudson. In high doses, PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and federal agencies list them as a probable human carcinogen. They affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems and are linked to low birth weight, thyroid disease, and learning and memory disorders. People are exposed to PCBs when they ingest fish and plants that have had the chemicals bioaccumulated in them. The PCBs are deposited in fatty tissue in the human body and remain there.
From 1947 to 1976, the General Electric Company (GE) discharged about 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river from two capacitor manufacturing plants in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls, NY. In 1984, the 200 miles of river between Hudson Falls and the Battery in NYC were listed among the most contaminated hazardous waste sites on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) National Priorities List. In 2009, GE did experimental dredging, with the EPA studying the resuspended contaminant risk and making the controversial decision that cleanup of the most
contaminated sediment hot spots in the 40 miles between Fort Edward and the Troy Dam was the best option. According to the National Resources Defense Council, GE fought the cleanup by spreading disinformation that dredging the river would actually stir up PCBs and at GE’s Hudson Falls plant, PCBs continue to leach into the Hudson.
GE completed phase 1 with EPA oversight from May to November 2009 when about 283,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment was removed from six miles of the Upper Hudson near Fort Edward. Phase 2 began in June 2011, the removal of approximately 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment by dredging between May and October, when the Champlain Canal is open. It is estimated to continue for five to seven years and General Electric is responsible for that site. Federal estimates put the cost at over $750 million, but industry experts say it could be many times that. GE declined to give their estimate.
After being dredged from the river bottom with 12 dredges working round the clock six days a week, the sediment is loaded onto large barges which get pushed by tugs through the New York State Champlain Canal’s Lock 7. It is unloaded, processed and dewatered at GE’s Fort Edward
processing, treatment and transportation facility built by GE for $100 million for that purpose. The treated water is discharged into the Champlain Canal. The dewatered sediment is loaded onto railcars and transported outside New York State and disposed of in federally permitted facilities– 2,000 miles on a train ride to a Texas hazardous waste dump, according to the NY Times.
The PCB-tainted sediment is to be replaced with clean fill and native river plants. View the slide show of the dredges and of the flooding of the Hudson River over its banks in the area in April 2011. One wonders where the contaminated riverbank soil ends up during the flood times. Click here to watch a video of dredging of PCBs on the Hudson River.
To prevent additional human exposure to the PCBs:
- an advisory was issued against eating any fish from the Hudson River between Hudson Falls and Troy;
- species and consumer-specific consumption advisories between Troy and NYC–south of Troy, children and women of childbearing age are advised not to eat fish at all;
- enforcement of a catch-and-release only between Hudson Falls and Troy
- an ongoing private well monitoring program by GE. Any resident whose well water has shown contamination was given the opportunity of municipal water supply connection with GE paying the cost.