Running more than 315 miles long, the Hudson River is a defining natural feature of the state of New York. Eventually draining into the Atlantic, the river serves as a natural boundary line between the states of New York and New Jersey. The river has served as a gathering site for communities, as well as poetic inspiration for the works of authors like Washington Irving. It’s also the site of some of the most prolific pollution in American history. While the river has always been subject to industrial waste, it’s the immense amount of polychlorinated biphenyls from the company General Electric that has drawn the most criticism. Today, much of the Hudson River stands as a Superfund site while many dredging companies work together to roll back the effects of these PCBs.
What are PCBs?
PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls are groups of man-made organic chemicals that are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine atoms. PCBs take many forms, and can present in forms like a thin oily film, or even a solid, waxy substance. The chemicals also present themselves in a variety of colors from lighter colored liquids that are shades of yellow, to a more solid, black colored wax. These chemical groups have no known smell or taste to them.
Polychlorinated biphenyls were manufactured throughout the United States starting in 1929 and stayed in production until they were banned in 1979. PCBs were used in many industrial and commercial applications because of their chemical stability, insulating properties, non-flammable nature, and high boiling point. They were used in products like paints, plastics, rubbers, pigments, and equipment meant to transfer heat or electricity.
Why are PCBs a Concern?
Despite their many uses, PCBs are also toxic, and their potency can widely vary. Research has found that PCBs can lead to a host of negative health effects. Studies have found that animals develop cancer when exposed to these chemicals, and other effects manifest as well. This includes issues with the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in the body.
When it comes to the Hudson River, the introduction of tons of these materials has dramatically changed the health of the rivers eco-systems, harming bird and fish populations, in addition, sickening human populations in the communities along the river.
How did PCBs get into the Hudson River?
The uses for PCBs were extensive enough that many chemical companies began making these for commercial ventures. In the case of the Hudson River, General Electric started dumping these harmful chemicals into the river in 1947. The wanton dumping continued unabated until 1977. During that 30 year period, an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs were dumped into the river. The source of these chemicals were two-capacitor manufacturing plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, NY.
What Impact has this had on the River?
Given the sheer volume of toxic materials dumped into the Hudson River, PCBs are now a prominent part of the ecosystem. PCBs can now be found in the sediments and soils that line the river’s course as well as the water that runs through the valley. These chemicals have also been found in wildlife and humans in the area.
With more than 200 miles of the Hudson River now contaminated by PCBs, the Environmental Protection Agency now lists the river as a Superfund Site, and it is one of the largest in the country. This is a concern because PCBs can build up (or bio-accumulate) as you move further up the food chain. The PCBs found in the soils work their way into the river plants, then into the fish, and finally into humans that eat them. The Superfund designation, along with the concentration of PCBs, makes the Hudson one of the most studied rivers in North America. The EPA, as well as state and private environmental groups, have created a variety of programs and projects to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the effects of the PCBs.
In our next blog post, U.S. Aqua Services will discuss the role that dredging plays in the management of these harmful chemicals. Until then, if you’re in need of a dredging company in New York, or are looking to rent dredging equipment, work with us. We can conduct a site visit to assess your needs and then connect you with the dredging equipment you need most. Contact us today.