NEW YORK - For 25 years, environmental groups and New York officials have concentrated on the problems posed by toxic PCBs in the Hudson River, but now they are starting to focus on land in the upper Hudson Valley.
More than six times as many PCBs were dumped on land as in the river, according to two separate investigations conducted by environmental groups and based on state records.
Although the chemicals are not as dangerous on land as they are in the river, where they become concentrated in fish and river sediment, they are leaking into ground water in a number of places, and may be leaking into the Hudson in a few, according to state officials.
Thirteen of the approximately 40 sites have been designated as a "significant threat to the public health or environment" by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, and many others contain PCBs and other toxic materials in concentrations above the level the federal government classifies as hazardous. The sites are scattered on either side of the river along a 40-mile stretch between Albany and Glens Falls.
These areas and others around the country could become a huge liability for the General Electric Corp., which dumped the chemicals into the river over the course of three decades from two electric capacitor plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. That, environmentalists say, is why the company has spent an estimated $60 million fighting the federal Environmental Protection Agency's $460 million proposal to dredge PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, from the riverbed.
"GE realizes that the Hudson River cleanup will be a precedent-setting case that could ultimately require them to spend billions cleaning up toxic sites throughout the Hudson River basin, as well as elsewhere throughout the country," said Walter Hang, the president of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca, N.Y., environmental research and advocacy group.
Mark Behan, a spokesman for GE, said, "We reach cleanup decisions based on what we consider best for the community and the environment at each location."
Behan added that the company reached an agreement with New York state to clean up seven of the land-based PCB dump sites in 1980, and said that in the other cases, GE was not liable because it did not do the actual dumping, though the chemicals may have come from its plants.
Donald Morrison, a dairy farmer whose land is a few hundred feet from the Hudson River in Moreau, N.Y., has long believed that GE should be forced to dredge the PCBs from the river. But like many people in this area, Morrison is also worried about the PCBs that were dumped on land. He has a 1999 letter from the state saying that tests have confirmed PCB contamination on his land, and he has been unable to sell it or get insurance or even a bank loan as a result, he said.
The unfenced 25-acre field next to Morrison's farm contains 40,000 to 90,000 pounds of PCBs dredged from the river that are seeping into the ground water and possibly into the Hudson, according to the state. Morrison's cows graze nearby, and his corn grows next to a sign that warns of buried PCB-contaminated material in another adjacent field that is fenced.
In addition, Morrison's land is regularly flooded by the Hudson. The state has found high levels of PCB contamination in some flood plain areas and has asked for federal help in assessing the problem, said Michael O'Toole, director of the agency's Division of Environmental Remediation.
Although the state has taken some steps to contain pollution at the sites, it delayed a full cleanup on most of them for more than a decade in hopes that the EPA would address them in its proposal for the river, said Jennifer Meicht, a spokeswoman for the DEC. Now that it is clear that will not happen, the state must finish cleaning up the sites or force GE or other responsible parties to do so.