Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fracking in New York: Weighing Risks and Benefits

The url provided below links to a short, readable 'white paper' on ‘fracking’ in New York State. This work was performed by my co-author, the physicist Dr. Randy Simon, and myself based upon the premise that a reasonably non-technical treatment of this issue by qualified experts viewing it from a strictly neutral, objective perspective would be useful. Please feel free to circulate the article, and/or quote from it:  


Saturday, July 27, 2013

A snapping turtle bill in New York State that should NOT become law...

    Assembly Bill A2490-2013 would amend the New York State Environmental Conservation Law to allow trappers to take snapping turtles, our State Reptile. Turtles already are under pressure globally, with populations reduced by more than half, and many species already endangered. Likewise, snappers are already under pressure in New York State. To permit trapping as an additional source of mortality for our State Reptile would be like allowing hunting of our national symbol, the bald eagle, as both are highly esteemed, emblematic, and pressured.
    The snapping turtle is a keystone species in ecosystems. Yet, ‘clamshell’ dredges that have been in use for several years removing PCB sediments in the Hudson River also have been killing hundreds if not thousands of these key ecosystem predators gruesomely. Several more years and many more miles of ecosystem mayhem in the Hudson River are planned. Likewise, the Mohawk River shoreline fluctuates drastically, posing risks to turtle eggs, and thereby to future turtle generations, as Canal System managers lower water levels to protect precarious dams and locks from damaging, increasingly frequent and intense storms. Shoreline variability threatens to inundate turtle eggs that were laid too close to shore, desiccate eggs laid too far away, and landlock unfortunate hatchlings.
    If the snapping turtle trapping proposal was motivated by our State’s economic woes, it is misguided also on economic grounds. Snapping turtles are generally harmless unless consumed. The danger to consumers arises from the ecosystem role of snapping turtles as top predators, concentrating toxins in their flesh, such as PCBs and mercury. So trapping them is unhealthy, both to people and to the turtles. This inconvenient truth precludes any significant commercial value of A2490. Snappers may be big turtles, but they are definitely not big business, and definitely not big tax generators for New York State.
    Trapping snapping turtles is unlike harvesting corn each year because, unlike corn, turtles do not grow back the following year. Turtles take many years to reach full size. Trapping them is more like cutting redwood trees: you must wait a long time to see them grow back, which they never will do if their habitat is also degraded, as it has been.

    A2490 passed in the Senate on 13 June 2013.  If it passes in the Assembly, it becomes law. Threatened and endangered turtles such as terrapins, Blanding's turtles, and wood turtles will be affected adversely as ‘bycatch’. The easiest snapping turtles to trap will be females laying eggs near riverside and lakeside roads. Although protection of all snapping turtles should continue, these females are least appropriate for trapping, because future snapping turtle generations depend upon their well-being. Trapping licenses, which should continue to exclude all snapping turtles, therefore should continue also to exclude egg-laying females, just as marine trappers are required by Federal law to protect egg-bearing (‘gravid’) female crabs and lobsters.

    I have been rescuing turtles, including snapping turtles, on local roads for two decades. In recent years snapping turtles have been smaller than in previous years. I also have observed fewer snapping turtles, probably due to habitat loss, especially road building projects. The east end of Rosendale Road in Niskayuna is an example, where frequent repaving gradually has elevated the roadbed and widened shoulders near the river, depriving turtles of suitable nesting sites. A recently-built retaining barrier on both sides of the road makes avoiding collisions with wildlife (and cars) more difficult. I suggested installing subterranean culverts to reduce roadkill by providing safe passage to wildlife including turtles, but funds for such construction were said to be unavailable.          

    Defeating A2490-2013 is scientifically justified and economically affordable as shown. Equally important, scientific evidence documenting the health of snapping turtle populations in New York State is nonexistent. Scientific evidence supporting the bill should have been a prerequisite for proposing it. Yet, I am aware of no such supporting evidence.

    Defeating A2490-2013 also is humane. Indeed, science also has shown that people are sympathetic to turtles, even snapping turtles. In one experiment, for example, drivers were observed to avoid hitting turtle decoys far more consistently than snake decoys that were placed on the road.

    Snapping turtles may be neither beautiful nor cuddly, but they are complex, intelligent animals. Once, I tried to remove a snapping turtle from a highway by offering her my sneaker, but she released it as soon as I started moving her. After that, she would not bite my sneaker again. I also raised three snapping turtles from eggs and, when I tried to release them two years later, I found that they had become imprinted on me, perhaps like geese to the behavioral animal psychologist Konrad Lorenz. Each turtle walked off the dock, entered the water, and then swam back to me. To release them, I tossed all three into the water, and walked away.

    Snapping turtles are not like lovable pet dogs, but they are underdogs, and they do need advocates. My advocacy is motivated by love and fascination for these ancient reptiles but, as shown above, it is based firmly on science. A2490-2013 should be defeated. Defeating A2490 is humane, scientifically justified, and economically affordable.
The above item was published in similar form by the Sunday Gazette (Schenectady) on 16 June 2013.

Monday, May 21, 2012

More on Emerging Issues for EPA PCB Dredging Five-Year Review

In its five-year review of the Hudson River PCB dredging project, EPA should consider the following three emerging developments in deciding whether Phase 2 can be resumed and implemented safely:

--1.  High-flow events are predicted to occur with increasing frequency in future years, as illustrated last year by events such as Tropical Storms Irene and Lee; such events will drive PCB sediments mobilized by dredging downstream for decades to come;

-–2.  The US Commerce Department this year added sturgeon to the Endangered Species List, requiring protection of their Lower Hudson River habitat from PCBs because, according to EPA (and others), their early life stages are unusually susceptible to PCBs, and

-–3.  Scientific articles now link PCBs to developmental processes that are thought to underlie causation of autism, most notably calcium channel effects that alter nerve cell dendrite branching patterns and, in turn, alter synapse formation in developing brains (in animal bioassays).

EPA has used reported adverse effects of PCBs as justification for removing PCB-contaminated sediments via dredging, but this is misleading for three reasons.  First, fundamental to EPA’s dredging plan is allowance of an increase in PCB mobilization for seven or so years of dredging on the hope that reduction will be on the horizon.  However, the horizon, as always, keeps receding as it is approached.  Second, natural attenuation is occurring and will continue to occur even without dredging.  Third, cleaner methods of dredging can be used in place of clamshell dredging.

EPA, therefore, must decide whether and how it can justify increased exposure to PCBs associated specifically with clamshell dredging for most of the next decade, and I would say well beyond.  EPA further must explicitly address the newly recognized and increased risks to human and environmental health, which already have materialized, and which will get worse before they get better as long as clamshell dredging continues for removal of PCB sediments in the Upper Hudson River.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Issues for EPA PCB Dredging Five-Year Review

Environmental groups recently have been advocating expansion of Hudson River PCB dredging.  They are premature at best, given the ongoing five-year review by EPA of the dredging project, required under the Superfund Law.  Maybe politics will drive the result of this review, but EPA and environmental groups should consider the documented, substantial long-term consequences of dredging, rather than seizing on the simplistic, short-term expedient of digging up more PCB sediments.  From personal experience, for example as past toxicologist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, I know that taking the long view is a hallmark of environmental activism.
Here are some observations that EPA should factor into its five-year review of the dredging project.  After the first season of dredging, GE reported that sediment samples outside the dredged area “show that dredging caused wide-spread redistribution of PCB-containing sediments on the surface of the river bottom.”  High-flow events already have driven some of this dredge-mobilized sediment downstream.
Future high-flow events, over years to decades, likewise will transport dredge-mobilized PCB sediments downstream, where they will enter water, air, and ecosystems.  This includes the habitat of Hudson River sturgeon, recently classified as “endangered” by the Commerce Department, which now must protect its habitat--principally the Hudson River--under the Endangered Species Act. 
Maybe the environmental groups seeking to expand dredging think that EPA ‘resuspension’ data indicate that dredge-mobilized PCB is not a problem… but this is false.  EPA’s official Hudson River PCB Dredging Peer Review Panel concluded in 2010 that EPA had failed to set an allowable sediment loading limit, failed to gather data needed do this, and failed to develop models to predict transport of dredge-mobilized sediment and PCB bioaccumulation based upon Hudson River hydrodynamics.
That is, EPA’s own Peer Review Panel position was that EPA sampling of resuspended PCB was not enough, because EPA failed to sample or model the vastly larger quantity of dredge-mobilized PCB resting on the river bottom.  The Agency, therefore, cannot assure the public that transport of sediment already mobilized by dredging won’t increase for decades, threatening ecosystems in the Lower Hudson River.  It cannot assure the Commerce Department that endangered sturgeon can survive decades of increased PCB transport to the Lower Hudson River.  Yet, the Agency seeks to resume dredging.
Phase 1 dredging was supposed to demonstrate the feasibility of Phase 2, but it did not do so.  It was designed to succeed because it featured bank-to-bank dredging to reduce mobilization of PCB sediments.  Even so, the project snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, because massive sediment mobilization occurred anyway.  More will occur in Phase 2, because only PCB ‘hotspots’ will be dredged.  Mobilization will transport PCB to areas of the river bottom that are not slated for future dredging.
Under normal river conditions only a miniscule fraction of this dredge-mobilized sediment (which EPA does not monitor) is resuspended right away.  Last spring, high flow delayed Phase 2 dredging for weeks.  EPA data now indicate that massive amounts of PCB were resuspended and carried downstream during that event.  Spinmasters, including environmental groups, stated without justification that even more PCB would have been transported without dredging.  EPA stated, remarkably, that no long-term damage to the river was done.  If PCB transport does not cause long-term damage, then what was EPA’s justification for dredging?  The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.
Contrary to agency spin, transport of PCB did increase because of dredging, as EPA always expected.  Transport of PCB sediments to areas that will never be dredged is clearly demonstrated, and was so severe in Phase 1 that EPA was forced to change its dredging procedures for Phase 2.  Even so, GE data show that net benefit of dredging will not be achieved for 46 years, even under wildly optimistic assumptions.  More likely, net benefit never will be achieved, because more PCB-laden sediments, distributed over more of the river bottom, will be biologically available and toxicologically active with dredging than without, for the foreseeable future.
High-flow events such as storms are forecast to occur with increasing frequency in the future.  Future events will have more severe consequences, as the area of dredged river bottom increases.  Over years to decades, cumulative transport of dredge-mobilized PCB sediments may nail the coffin shut on recovery of endangered sturgeon in the Lower Hudson.

EPA should address these issues in its five-year review of dredging.  Certainly, the Commerce Department will.  Environmental groups likewise should consider them, to protect Hudson River communities and ecosystems.  To be an environmental activist is to take the long view.  Environmental groups can ignore long-term consequences of positions that they advocate for short-term benefit… but only at the peril of their legacies.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Hudson River PCB Dredging: Impacts on Endangered Sturgeon

A watershed event for Atlantic sturgeon, and for us all, occurred on 6 February, when the Department of Commerce added this ancient fish to the Endangered Species List. The Federal Government now is committed to protecting sturgeon and their habitat… most notably the Hudson River. Loss of habitat is a big part of the problem of loss of sturgeon, as fishing for sturgeon has been prohibited for over a decade, since 1999.

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 Silence on Impacts of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee on Hudson River PCB Dredging Is Ominous

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

Repairing the Flawed US Post Office Business Model, for Economic and Environmental Benefit

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

Hudson River PCB Dredging: Hearings and Injunctions May Be Imminent

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

Hudson River Dredging: Westchester & New York City, Next Stops for Mobilized PCB

Fred LeBrun’s April-24th Commentary in the Albany Times Union Newspaper, titled Dredging up a PCB Resolution, describes Hudson River PCB dredging as simply removing two million cubic yards of tainted sediments. He visualizes an armada of 100 vessels excavating noxious PCB, and loading it into railcars for landfilling far away. Mr. LeBrun’s columns on birds and bees reveal a great naturalist, but PCB dredging requires different expertise, and his explication is technically flawed.

Mr. LeBrun fails to appreciate that PCB preferentially binds to the finest particles such as silt and mud, whereas dredging preferentially removes coarser objects such as sand grains, rocks, tree stumps, and construction debris. In 2009, dredging Phase 1 near Fort Edward, New York revealed surface PCB sheens, indicating the presence of liquid PCB beneath the surface, which clamshell dredges cannot capture. PCB that is bound to fine silts and muds can flow many miles before settling. The finest particles and oily liquid PCB never settle; they travel downstream, entering ecosystems and air. If unchecked, they soon will invade Westchester County and New York City. They will not flow out to sea, because the lower Hudson is an estuarine system, subject to the ebb and flow of tides; materials carried by rivers downstream to estuarine systems tend to accumulate rather than flow unimpeded to the ocean.

Mr. LeBrun must have noticed, as we did, that clamshell dredges used in Phase 1 leaked much if not most of the fine silt and mud back into the river. He should have concluded, as GE reported in 2010, that dredging had mobilized PCB-contaminated sediments, spreading it widely on previously uncontaminated sections of the river bottom. In short, Mr. LeBrun’s misconception is that the mass and volume of buried PCB is the main problem, whereas the area of river bottom from which PCB sediments can be scoured by currents is actually the main problem… and that area is increasing dramatically, probably by a factor of over a thousand-fold already. Before dredging, nearly all of the buried PCB sediment was immobile, but dredging now has mobilized much of it. As a naturalist, Mr. LeBrun will rue the already-occurring effects on Hudson River ecosystems, such as a five-fold increase in PCB concentrations found in fish tissue.

Mr. LeBrun’s armada is moving downstream for dredging Phase 2 to commence this month. Phase 3 of Hudson River PCB remediation has yet to be announced. It will not involve Fort Edward, and it will not involve clamshell dredging. It will involve Westchester County and New York City, neither of which would permit clamshell dredging anywhere nearby. Influential columnists like Mr. LeBrun should seek to protect our communities and ecosystems, just as those to our south surely will protect theirs.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Less Data, More Doubt About Hudson River PCB Dredging

Dr. Robert A. Michaels*

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.