A Hudson comeback with complications

hudson-comeback-complications
A fisherman on the Hudson River. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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For every sign of the Hudson River’s comeback from years of pollution and degradation, it seems, there is an indication of how much further it has to go.

After a 100-year absence, more than 600 eagles now live on the Hudson, nesting and staying through for the winter to gobble fish and eels, and the water is swimmable.

But conditions under the surface of the river tell another tale, indicating just how far the river is from a full recovery. Overfishing and habitat destruction primarily reduced the population of fish, and the destruction of wetlands and dumping of raw sewage further hurt the river and the animal species that depend on it for food and a place to reproduce.

The population of shad, once so plentiful that they were served in 19th century restaurants as “Albany beef,” is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Atlantic sturgeon and river herring are similarly threatened.

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Local governments have taken some positive steps toward addressing factors that have hurt the river. A group of upstate cities recently signed an agreement, after years of pressure, to stop dumping raw sewage into the Hudson River that raised bacteria to unsafe levels for days or weeks at a time. That removes a significant source of contaminants.

But antiquated New York City sewers still dump 28 billion gallons of sewage and rainwater runoff into the river every year.

This push-and-pull dynamic is very much evident in an ongoing cleanup of the river being conducted by one of America’s biggest companies.

General Electric, for now, is continuing its mandated cleanup of pollutants that remain from its dumping of 1.3 million pounds of P.C.B.s—polychlorinated biphenyls, a man-made chemical whose manufacture was banned in the late 1970s—into the river over about three decades beginning in 1947.

This cleanup is a particularly important factor in the river’s recovery, since, as U.S. Department of the Interior's Kathryn Jahn put it, “Everything in the river is contaminated with P.C.B.s.”

But the company now cites the very improvement of the river’s environmental condition as evidence that its efforts have largely achieved their aims, and can be safely wound down.

According to Jahn, the massive cleanup effort by G.E. to clean up 40 miles of the river from Fort Edward to Troy has kept a bad situation from getting worse.

Still, she said, P.C.B.s remain in surface and ground water, as well as in sediments and flood plains. The levels have gone down in some animal populations, but are still very high in others, she said. Fish, mink, frogs and toads are just some of the organisms that have high levels of contamination that is passed down to the offspring.

The next great fight for the future of the Hudson may be over a 60-mile, P.C.B.-infested canal that runs from Lake Champlain to the Hudson. It cannot be dredged, which inhibits commercial transportation, and which means it will cost an estimated $180 million to clean up.

G.E. has so far declined to take on responsibility for cleaning up the canal, and a spokesman recently signaled that another court case is likely.

This article appeared in the March edition of Capital magazine.