Monday, May 21, 2012
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Friday, March 9, 2012
Early life stages of sturgeon including larvae and eggs… ‘caviar’… are susceptible to PCB contamination. According to EPA, “Fragile populations of threatened and endangered species in the Lower Hudson River, represented by the bald eagle and shortnose sturgeon, are particularly susceptible to adverse effects from future PCB exposure.” The Lower Hudson River, below Troy Dam, is where PCBs are flowing from dredge-disturbed sediments in the Upper Hudson River, at Fort Edward.
By “future PCB exposure” EPA meant exposure if dredging does not occur… but dredging is occurring. PCB exposure is increasing as a result, and EPA reported that PCB concentrations in fish tissue in the Upper Hudson River already have increased fivefold, after just a year of dredging. EPA now must reconsider its plan to dredge for five more years in the new context of the ‘endangered’ legal status of Hudson River sturgeon.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
EPA reported that Hudson River PCB dredging is “back on target” after high river flow delayed the start of Phase 2 this past spring. What EPA has refused to say, though I repeatedly asked via phone and email, is what effects were exerted on dredging by even faster flows caused by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, which interrupted dredging during the summer. Indeed, raging currents driven by Irene and Lee caused 500-year flooding, and gouged new channels up to 45 feet deep along the Mohawk River. The storms exerted comparable effects on the Hudson River.
Effects of swift flow include scouring of PCB-laden sediment exposed by dredging to downstream areas; washing away of plantings designed to stabilize the river bottom and reestablish ecosystems; disruption of caps placed over residual PCB sediments; flooding; and deposition of PCB sediment on the shore as 'flood mud'.
A theme popularized in the movie version of Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi book “I, Robot” is: “You must ask the right question.” Regarding the above-mentioned PCB dredging issues, the right questions are the questions that EPA refuses to answer:
--Did tropical storms Irene and Lee wash away caps protecting PCB sediments left in dredge trenches?
--Did the racing river disrupt and transport PCB sediments downstream?
--Did currents wash away vegetation that was planted to stabilize the river bottom, setting back the clock on ecosystem restoration?
--Did the river deposit PCB sediments on shore as 'flood mud'?
After the high-flow event this past spring, EPA sent divers to investigate, and sampled ‘flood mud’. On 31 August, with the river still raging after Tropical Storm Irene, and before arrival o Tropical Storm Lee, these things could not have been done yet. EPA emailed me anyway: “Good news, there were no issues on the project related to Irene.” Based upon no investigation, this had to be EPA policy, not information.
Later, EPA reported that resuspended sediment concentrations had remained "within acceptable guidelines." EPA guidelines, however, are ineffective at measuring PCB mobilization. When storms greatly increase river flow, PCB sediments are scoured and massively diluted. This dilution keeps PCB concentrations in river water (EPA's guideline measurement) "acceptable." With sufficient storm dilution, virtually all of the dredge-disturbed PCB sediment can be driven downstream without contravention of EPA's resuspension guidelines. Thus, invisible to EPA's guidelines, swift flow increases downstream transport of PCB sediments and resulting contamination of river water, ecosystems, and air. EPA's failure to measure these effects with its guidelines, failure to measure the area of newly contaminated river bottom, and silence on these issues, together are ominous.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
This year’s Postal Service deficit is approaching $9 billion, but remedial suggestions seem ineffective. Closing some post offices will make delivery more expensive, and USPS less competitive. Reducing delivery days will divert more business to the internet or other carriers. The fact is, the USPS business model is flawed. To fix it, USPS operations should not be reduced; they should be made profitable and then, if possible, increased.
I suggest dividing USPS revenue into two streams, one from mail senders and one from mail recipients. Currently, senders pay for delivery to addressees. Instead, senders should pay for delivery only to an addressee’s nearest post office. USPS would sell subscriptions for delivery to any of the 150 million addresses that USPS visits each day, thereby linking the price of delivery to associated costs of labor, vehicles, fuel, and environmental pollution.
If sending and delivery (hypothetically) are equally priced, the price of sending could be divided almost in half, thereby increasing USPS business. The reduced sending price would increase access of the poor to postal services. Those in need also could receive subsidies toward paying for delivery subscriptions. As they do now, USPS customers optionally could have post office boxes to pick up mail instead of paying for delivery. USPS is ‘too big to fail’. If it is failing, taxpayers may be on the hook to bail it out.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
April 14th may have been EPA’s last chance to avert legislative hearings, judicial injunctions, and delay of Hudson Dredging Phase 2, scheduled to commence this month (May). EPA must justify its Phase 2 plan, especially in light of the evident failure of Phase 1. To do this, EPA held a public meeting in Fort Edward on 14 April, led by GE, to explain why the Agency and GE think that resumed dredging can be and should be implemented. GE and EPA had much to explain and, these days, much public opposition to overcome. They were unable to make an affirmative showing, however, that continued dredging will be safe and beneficial within a reasonable time frame.
Why dredge if benefit comes, at best, only decades later? The latest GE estimates show that, if just five percent of sediment is released back to the river at the ‘dredgehead’, dredging will require 46 years to match the effectiveness of simply doing nothing. That is, no benefit can be expected until the year 2057 at the earliest, optimistically assuming no delays and no mobilization of PCB sediments other than resuspension. See the chart to appreciate this inconvenient truth (click on it to enlarge).
Will EPA consider all of sediment mobilization in Phase 2, or just ‘resuspension’ as in Phase 1? EPA must draw a clear distinction between PCB sediment ‘resuspension’ vs. ‘mobilization’. Dredge-disturbed sediment is mobile in the sense that it can be and will be scoured from the river bottom during high-flow events such as storms, and will enter river water, ecosystems, and air. EPA justified dredging because an immeasurably tiny fraction of PCB-tainted sediments remained mobile despite decades of natural burial, but in Phase 1 the Agency virtually ignored massively greater dredge-disturbance of sediments.
To quantify sediment mobilization in Phase 1, EPA required GE to measure only sediment that was ‘resuspended’ in the water far away (miles) from dredge platforms. The vast majority of sediment dropped back to the river bottom, however, does not appear as resuspended material in samples of water taken far away from the action, but it will spread to downstream areas months to years later. Thus, in 50 years EPA may find the river in much the same condition from dredging today that it was in 50 years ago from PCB disposal into the river by GE. That’s a half-century setback. In the unrealistically optimistic case that dredging will achieve the same result in 46 years as natural burial achieved without dredging in roughly the same time frame, then dredging will achieve no net benefit, not in 46 years, and not ever. The technical term for this is 'never'.
How do EPA and GE intend to limit sediment mobilization in Phase 2? More than half of dredge-disturbed sediment remained in the river in Phase 1. Will the Agency simply limit resuspension to just two percent, or five percent, at the ‘dredgehead’ in Phase 2? Indeed, EPA’s HUDTOX modeling predicted that mobilization at the dredgehead would be so great as to be unacceptable. No problem: in justifying dredging, EPA (according to its own website) simply suppressed these modeling runs. Instead, EPA modeled ‘resuspension’ 1000 meters (over a half mile) downstream, a distance requiring months to years for the preponderance of sediments to traverse via bottom scouring during high flow events. Under EPA’s carefully designed environmental monitoring protocols for Phase 1, GE measured resuspension, not 1000 meters downstream of dredges, but five to seven miles downstream, where massive sediment mobilization at the dredgehead would be impossible to detect even if it occurred (which, now we know, it did).
Will EPA and GE measure, or just model, sediment mobilization at the dredgehead? EPA’s history of suppressing modeling results in favor of more favorable modeling results raises the question of how the Agency might confirm in Phase 2 that it succeeded in limiting resuspension to within, say, two percent at the dredgehead. The 14-April meeting provided an opportunity for GE and EPA to tell the public whether (and how) it will monitor mobilization at the dredgehead, or whether (and how) it will back-calculate mobilization. Or, will EPA continue to just monitor ‘resuspension’, based upon monitoring miles downstream as it did in Phase 1?
Neither GE nor EPA addressed these critical issues at the 14-April meeting. EPA’s assumptions, therefore, must be scrutinized to assure that they will achieve the results they claim to be realistic, and scrutinize the applicable Phase 2 engineering standards to assure that Phase 2 environmental monitoring will be sufficient to document the results relative to the goals. In Phase 1 they were not. Finally, if EPA will monitor mobilization only via 'resuspension', then Phase 2 results will not be monitored in a manner that can detect problems in the near term and avert them in the long term. Instead, as in Phase 1, problems will be evident only from retrospective signs of success or failure, such as measurements of PCB levels in ecosystems and the tissues of fish, turtles, and other river organisms.
Now the rubber meets the road… will EPA rise to the challenge of showing affirmatively that Phase 2 of the dredging project will be safe and effective, or will the Agency just require GE to move forward without regard to the evident risks? Will mayors and supervisors of river towns seek judicial injunctions to require EPA to make an affirmative showing of safety and benefit before proceeding? Will elected representatives in State Government and Congress request hearings on EPA actions to assure that they are justified by safety and effectiveness before they can be undertaken? Will members of the public, in northern communities affected now and in downstream communities in Westchester County and New York City which will be affected soon, demand that their elected leaders rise to the challenge of protecting them, or risk being removed from office when next up for election? Now the policy rubber meets the scientific road... with, so far, stultifying friction.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Imagine you are a powerful federal environmental agency concerned about GE’s disposal of DDT’s almost-twin, PCBs, from 1947 to 1977 into the Hudson River and to neighboring land. You might do what EPA did in 1984: add the Hudson River Superfund Site to the National Priorities List for remediation to be paid for by the polluter. You would study the river, and find ways of cleaning it, including letting nature degrade the PCBs the way nature does: naturally. ‘Natural attenuation’ was specified initially because EPA was uncertain about the safety and effectiveness of dredging.
If you really wanted to dredge regardless of safety, you might do what EPA did in 2000: drastically underestimate Hudson River PCB risks, then design a demonstration project that would fail to collect data to enable warning of harm in real time, and project evaluation over years or decades. You might call it Phase 1, which EPA mandated in 2002 to evaluate use of dredging to clean the Hudson. Conducted in 2009, Phase 1 evidently failed, even based upon limited data collection required by EPA.
Data collection in Phase 1 was extensive in the ‘far field’, far from dredge platforms, but inadequate in the ‘near field’, at dredge platforms. PCBs were monitored in water five to seven miles downstream of dredges, but not at the dredges. Waterborne PCB concentrations at dredge platforms, therefore, are anyone’s guess. If dredging disrupted pure PCB oils, which were disposed into the river and to the land for three decades, they would not be detected until massively diluted during miles of downstream transport in a turbulent river.
PCBs were monitored in air via portable samplers on opposite riverbanks alongside each dredge platform. The samplers were nearly useless, because they averaged PCB concentrations over 24-hour periods. The wind came from all directions, so PCBs originating from dredge platforms were massively diluted by clean air from other directions. As dredge platforms moved downstream, the portable samplers followed, leaving none to record evolving concentrations of airborne PCB, whose release from river water may be delayed significantly and continue indefinitely. As more river was dredged, the number of samplers remained constant, resulting in fewer samplers per acre dredged. At the end of Phase 1, the portable samplers were withdrawn, not just downstream, but altogether, leaving no samplers to record evolving airborne PCB levels over future months and years.
Airborne PCB also was sampled via personal samplers worn by employees working on dredge platforms. These samplers, however, had a detection limit of 1000 micrograms per cubic meter, nearly 100 times EPA’s residential Level of Concern for PCBs, reflecting a higher limit for occupational exposure. Despite numerous requests, EPA has failed to release this data, without which the public cannot know if airborne PCB was detected even above this high concentration.
Despite data gaps, the failure of Phase 1 was evident from several objective indicators. Only 10 of 18 five-acre Phase 1 work units were dredged, because PCBs were found in a deeper layer of sediments, requiring more dredging time. Even in dredged work units, PCB sediments were not removed as planned: 37 percent were capped to prevent PCB from entering river water, ecosystems, and air. That is, EPA allowed GE to restore these areas, as best it could, to pre-dredging conditions, with PCBs buried beneath clean sediment.
Dredge buckets dumped more material back into the river than into barges, because they encountered obstacles in the river bottom, such as tires, logs, rocks, concrete blocks and other construction debris, preventing them from closing completely. Worse, nearly pure PCB oils were found, unlike sediments harboring PCBs in merely the low parts-per-million range. Of course, the material dumped into the barges did not include the disrupted liquid PCB oils, which now are spreading, with dredge-mobilized sediments, to downstream water, ecosystems, and air.
Repeatedly, EPA’s water monitoring station five to seven miles downstream of dredge platforms revealed PCB at levels above the stop-dredging threshold. Repeatedly, levels in air adjacent to dredge platforms revealed levels above the stop-dredging threshold. Repeatedly, dredging had to be suspended.
As part of the demonstration project, EPA convened a Peer Review Panel to evaluate Phase 1. The Panel’s initial report, to which GE and EPA responded, raked EPA over the coals, most notably saying:
"The incomplete analysis done for the 2004 [Engineering Performance Standards] does not consider near-field and far-field PCB deposition rates on the sediment bed surface."
This little statement has a huge meaning: EPA failed to consider sediment mobilization at dredge platforms (the ‘near field’). That is huge, because dredge platforms are where dredged sediments are mobilized, and where the Peer Review Panel accused EPA of failing to look. Here is EPA’s revealing response:
“EPA did simulate near field suspended matter transport and settling in its near-field modeling analysis. The HUDTOX model runs did not reflect the near-field settled solids but did incorporate an estimate of dredging-related suspended solids transport 1000 meters downstream of the dredge. This analysis was the basis for the EPA forecasts of dredging-related resuspension” [emphasis added].
That technical response is a huge admission of how EPA suppressed expected dredging impacts, because nearly all dredged material that leaks out of dredge buckets initially falls to the river bottom near the point of dredging, whereas EPA predicted sediment mobilization based upon the miniscule amount resuspended and transported 1000 meters (over a half mile) downstream. EPA’s statement shows how the agency justified dredging by ignoring the gradual erosion from the river bottom of nearly all dredge-mobilized PCB-bearing sediments over a period of years or decades, and entry of PCBs from these sediments into downstream water, ecosystems, and air.
In January an article in the Cambridge University Press journal Environmental Practice showed that a major discrepancy exists between sediment mobilized in dredging Phase I versus the much smaller amount measured and reported by GE. Its authors, myself and engineer Dr. Uriel Oko, showed that the preponderance of mobilized sediment remains on the river bottom, still mobile, but unrecorded in GE or EPA sediment mobilization data. We termed this the “sediment mobilization discrepancy.”
The sediment mobilization discrepancyrepresents more than merely a difference between a measured and an actual parameter value. Rather, it represents a fundamental inconsistency in EPA’s past justification of the need to dredge versus EPA’s current characterization of the performance of the dredging project in Phase 1. The need for dredging was justified by the mobility of sediments in PCB “hotspots” requiring, according to EPA, their removal by dredging. In contrast, in the new context of actual dredging in Phase 1, EPA dramatically altered its concept of mobility. Mobility in the dredging project is newly quantified by the miniscule fraction of mobilized PCB that is detected miles downstream. Thus, EPA simply has ignored nearly all sediment and PCB mobilization in evaluating Phase 1, notwithstanding that the persistent mobility of dissolved, colloidal, and fine-particle-adsorbed PCB originally constituted for EPA a central rationale for specifying the dredging remedy for the Hudson River PCB Superfund site.
The Peer Review Panel rejected EPA’s response, concluding in its final report:
“Phase 1 showed that the 2004 EPS [Engineering Performance Standard] for Resuspension, Residuals, and Productivity were not met individually or simultaneously during Phase 1 and cannot be met under Phase 2 without substantive changes. EPA and GE proposed changes to the EPS, but the Panel finds that the new proposed standards from either party would not contribute to the successful execution of Phase 2” [page 84].
EPA had prohibited the Panel from saying whether dredging should continue, or whether Phase 2, if undertaken, could meet project health goals. What is proper to assume about EPA’s ‘don’t-ask, don’t-tell’ gag order? Did EPA fear receiving advice that might undermine a political decision to dredge? What is proper to assume when any party, including a powerful federal environmental agency, acts in a manner that assures unavailability of critical information?
Regulatory agencies, scientists, lawyers, and IRS agents have rules about what is proper to assume. If you can’t substantiate your claim of a tax deduction, the IRS properly will assume that your questionable income should be taxed. If you can’t produce records that substantiate that your factory’s chemical discharges were within permitted limits, your regulator properly may penalize you. The proper assumption is that failure to document is the moral and legal equivalent of failure to comply. Penalties for recordkeeping violations may be as harsh as for documented permit violations. EPA’s stance on dredging therefore must be viewed in the context of what is proper to assume when critical information is distorted, withheld, or not developed.
*Dr. Michaels performed original research on DDT and PCBs for his Masters thesis and Doctoral dissertation. He is president of Schenectady-based RAM TRAC Corporation, consulting in health risk assessment and management. Dr. Michaels is aware of no conflict of interest, and has received no funding or promise of funding for this work.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Dredging up trouble
Hudson PCB removal worsens the problem, objective studies show
By Robert A. Michaels
Sunday, January 23, 2011
A saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
The saying does not cover the much larger number of times the public has been misled by technically flawed claims by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that dredging PCB-contaminated sediments from Hudson River “hotspots” is safe and effective. Abundant evidence and expert advice say that it is neither.
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s blockbuster “Silent Spring” revealed that PCBs’ almost-twin brother, DDT, was destroying ecosystems. Its actions were subtle, such as thinning the eggshells of predatory birds. DDT’s subtlety fooled us into focusing mainly upon its benefits, such as killing malarial mosquitoes. DDT and PCBs are so similar structurally that, until the 1960s, environmental monitoring could not tell them apart, and findings regarding DDT included PCBs. The effects of PCBs and DDT were attributed to DDT alone.
DDT and PCBs caused damage from which global ecosystems are still recovering, a half-century later. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons were at the brink of extinction.
The entry of PCBs into the Hudson River environment via dredging may set the clock for river recovery back by decades. PCBs, however, decay faster than DDT, so natural decomposition may be a better route to a cleaner river than dredging.
In 2007, two years before dredging Phase 1, an article in the Cambridge University Press journal Environmental Practice showed that EPA’s “baseline” health risk assessment drastically underestimated Hudson River PCB risks to public health. Worse, nine critical parameters had been misestimated and, more to the point, all nine had been misestimated in the dredging-friendly direction. The authors, myself and engineer Uriel Oko, concluded that EPA’s assessment had been biased systematically in favor of dredging.
In the summer of 2010, Dr. Oko and I submitted a manuscript evaluating dredging Phase 1. Our second Environmental Practice article, just released, showed that dredge buckets dropped more PCB sediment back into the river than into barges, and EPA’s environmental monitoring program would miss potentially the most significant releases of PCB to Hudson River water, air and ecosystems. We called for EPA disclosure of data from exposure monitors worn by GE contractors working on dredge platforms (minus personal information).
About two months after we submitted our manuscript, a six-member panel advising EPA on Hudson River PCB dredging released its report. EPA had prohibited the panel from saying whether dredging should continue, or whether dredging as planned in Phase 2 could meet the project’s health goals. Despite EPA’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” gag order, the panel boldly and clearly suggested that dredging could not proceed on schedule while protecting public health, stating also that changes in strategy proposed by GE and EPA would not change this dire prediction.
Signs of trouble
Even before last summer, evidence of trouble had emerged. GE’s March 2010 report evaluating Phase 1 found that dredging had “caused previously buried PCB-containing sediments to migrate downstream and settle on the surface of the river bottom, where they became bioavailable . . . and downstream sediment cores of previously sampled areas showed an average increase of three times pre-dredging concentrations. These and other lines of evidence show that dredging caused widespread redistribution of PCB-containing sediments on the surface of the river bottom.” EPA’s own report did not dispute this finding.
The problem will be worse if Phase 2 is undertaken, because the PCB hotspots to be dredged are farther apart than in Phase 1. PCB-contaminated sediment falling back into the river downstream of the original dredging location will not be dredged again. It will remain mobile in the river. Currents will erode it from the river bottom and carry it to downstream water, air and ecosystems.
In short, four studies, including one commissioned by EPA, all deliver essentially the same message: EPA’s safety claims for past dredging and planned future dredging are technically flawed. They remain unsubstantiated, and therefore should be rejected, just as your claim for a tax deduction would be rejected if you could not substantiate it when required to by the IRS.
EPA’s persistence in the face of technical refutation of its safety claims is a mystery. My tentative explanation is politics. Politics may explain why a project planned during three Bush presidential administrations spanning 12 years is sending PCBs and a half-billion dollars to Texas, rather than using a secure landfill in New York for a fraction of the price.
Politics may explain why the environmental interests of groups such as the Riverkeeper and Sierra Club so far have prevailed over the public health interests of riverfront communities. As a scientist, I take no political position on dredging. But I strongly advocate restoration of scientific objectivity to the decision process.
Objectivity tells me, and it should tell you, that the PCB problem is not primarily the unknown mass and volume of PCB that lies buried in the river bottom; rather, the problem is the area of exposed river bottom from which PCB-contaminated sediments may enter water, air and ecosystems.
Objectivity tells me, and it should tell you, that dredging can reduce the mass and volume of buried PCB by a lot, while still making the PCB problem a lot worse by expanding the small area of contaminated river bottom. That, by all accounts including EPA’s, is what dredging is doing — objectively speaking.
A chink has appeared in EPA’s armor: caps to cover incompletely dredged river areas. Allowing capping is EPA’s way of admitting that natural degradation of PCBs remaining in the river bottom is preferable, at least in some areas. The fraction capped in Phase 1 was a whopping 37 percent. Although EPA says the fraction will be less in Phase 2, the Phase 2 number is just a target. Practicality may force EPA to allow more capping this spring, thereby requiring less dredging. Stay tuned.
Robert Michaels is president of Schenectady-based RAM TRAC Corporation, consulting in health risk assessment and management.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Schenectady B’nai B’rith, Unit 879 is pleased to announce that toxicologist and RAM TRAC Corporation health risk consultant Dr. Robert A. Michaels will be the 19-September Sunday Breakfast speaker. Dr. Michaels will present “Hudson River PCB Dredging: A Critical View” at 10 a.m. to noon in the Community Room of B’nai B’rith House (22 Knolls Road in Schenectady). All are welcome. The charge, including breakfast, will be $5.00 per person. For further information please contact Schenectady B'nai B'rith President Bill Pearlman: email@example.com, 518-393-7412.