ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Crews dredging a contaminated stretch of the upper Hudson River in New York dramatically picked up their pace in the third year of the massive Superfund cleanup.
Workers are expected to have dredged close to 649,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment when they wrap up for the season next week -- about equal to the dredging total for the first two years on the river. Crews working for General Electric Co. were helped along this year by good river conditions -- compared to heavy flooding last year -- and an expanded facility for processing the contaminated mud.
The project overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency is on track to be finished by fall 2016 or even earlier. Still, a GE spokesman said there’s no guarantee this year’s fast pace can be replicated, given changeable river conditions and the fact that crews are working their way downriver, farther away from the processing facility.
"It has been a productive year, but it’s tempting to underestimate the logistical complexity of the project," said GE spokesman Mark Behan.
GE is expected to spend more than $1 billion on the federal Superfund project to dredge up polychlorinated biphenyls it released into the river before 1977. The gooey PCBs, a once-common coolant in electrical equipment, are a suspected carcinogen. The upper river is considered so polluted that health officials warn people not to eat the fish.
This is the third year that crews have been dredging the upper Hudson since 2009 (with a year off in 2010 to analyze first-year results).
Officials with the EPA and GE said they have made progress in reducing the amount of PCBs stirred up into the water during the dredging.
However there were times when air monitors on the river measured high PCB levels. Dave King, the Environmental Protection Agency’s coordinator for the project said the so-called exceedances happened during work on highly contaminated areas of the river and that crews managed to keep the releases to a minimum.
The decision to dredge was controversial in the rural towns north of Albany, pitting people who saw it as the best chance to clean up the river against those who said the dredging would be disruptive and useless. GE, under former chief executive officer Jack Welch, waged an aggressive anti-dredging campaign for years, though the company has cooperated with the EPA since the agency ordered dredging in 2002.
While many environmental advocates continue to argue for dredging beyond the boundaries called for in the Superfund project, a number of them said they were pleased with GE’s work.
"It took a while to get them going, but I’m very satisfied with the way they’ve proceeded," said William Koebbeman, who represents the Sierra Club on the Superfund project’s community advisory group.
After dredging ends for the season in the coming days, crews will be on the river for a few more weeks to backfill dredged areas.