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The “Polluted” Hudson – A Primer on PCBs

New York Fishing Articles, Regional Fishing, United States Fishing Articles |

It does not take a lot of effort to become aware of the controversy surrounding the PCB pollution of the Hudson River. The news media have been reporting on the Environmental Protection Agencies’ recent decision to dredge a forty mile stretch of the upper river north of Troy. If you live in the Northeast you may also be aware of the advertising campaign funded by General Electric that has been running on television and radio.

Like many issues, this one also has become very polar with zealots on both sides challenging one another. Opinions are certainly welcome in any argument and those opinions often become the basis for decision making. We must realize however, that opinions are often error based; that is to say they may very well be focusing on emotions rather than fact (or science as in this case). It would not be too difficult for me, as a charter boat captain that derives the lions share of his business from the Hudson, to become very vocal on the negative aspects of dredging. It may very well impact my business in a major way. But, I am also a scientist, and the wisdom gained by maturing has taught me to think as a scientist and to apply my knowledge in a manner that is consistent with my training and life experiences.

It is the intent of this article to provided information to many of my friends and readers who choose to pursue fishing as a business or pleasure regarding the issues surrounding PCBs and the Hudson River.

What are PCBs?

Polychlorinatedbiphenyls – chemicals used in the past to act as an insulating material in a multitude of electrical applications. They are very heat stable and take years to degrade. There are over 200 PCB compounds which have a base chemical structure of two phenyl rings bonded together.

Variations, for the most part, are due to the location and number of chlorine atoms bonded to the carbon atoms on the phenyl rings. Some of the trade names used in this country include Pyranol, Therminol, Aroclor and Phenoclor.

PCBs were banned in 1979 but prior to that date were used extensively enough to allow them to become a part of our environment; in the water, air and soil. The whole scenario reminds me of the history of DDT – in that case a chlorinated hydrocarbon.

There is sufficient evidence to show that PCBs are carcinogenic in animals with studies showing the presence of liver cell tumors in mice. The evidence is limited in humans, however they must be considered probable carcinogens based upon the animal studies.

Hudson History

To begin with we must realize that this is not a local problem. The literature available on the subject of PCB contamination is volumous and it covers the globe. Our concerns focus on the Hudson and for the most part the region north of Troy, N.Y. in an area known as the Thompson Island Pool. Prior to being banned in 1979 General Electric released large quantities of these chemicals into the river in this area. The river sediment is holding large quantities of the PCBs in this region and contamination has been detected as far south as Kingston. In a recent study done by R.P.I.of fish contaminated with PCBs the data showed levels in striped bass were low enough in the river south of Catskill (<2.0ppm in filets) to allow for consumption. It was also indicated that lipid levels (fatty tissue) were higher. Consequently, it is advisable for fishermen to reduce the fatty tissues on the filets when cleaning these fish for consumption. This finding is part of the basis for a study done to examine the feasibility of allowing for the commercial taking of striped bass in the lower river. Keep in mind that striped bass are a migratory fish spending a brief part of their lives in the Hudson for spawning purposes.

There are other species to consider as well – may of which are used as a food source by Hudson fishermen. Higher levels of contamination are found in fish based upon their location, type of feeding and time spent in the Hudson. Extreme examples would be catfish in the region considered for dredging as opposed to bluefish in the Tappan Zee area.

The Pros and Cons of Dredging

All one has to do is view the ad campaign sponsored by G.E. to get the negative aspects of a wide scale dredging operation. They do make a good point and without a doubt it will disrupt a large region of the river and its shoreline for a number of years. Will it bring into suspension a higher level of these contaminants that will increase concentrations downstream from the dredging operation? I think this is a real possibility and an ongoing study both during and after the project of PCB levels in the biotic environment of the river should be mandated.
The short term effect has all the merits of producing a real “mess” in the area where dredging is proposed and a distinct possibility of a negative impact on the river south of Troy. Long term, and by that I mean decades into the future, perhaps the source of PCBs will have been reduced considerably by the dredging and levels in the river overall will also be reduced having a positive effect felt by generations to come.

Once again, I perceive this issue to be polarized based upon a number of factors. Discounting those that are not scientifically based I tend to still be “on the fence” leaning one way and then the other depending upon what article I have most recently read. A recent poll done by Siena College published in the Times Herald Record (Dec. 11, 2000) indicated that the majority were not in favor of dredging.

A “final” decision will be made sometime this year and more likely than not the controversy will continue.

An Update on My View

It has been a while since I wrote the previous article regarding PCBs and I have made an effort to delve into the data a bit more. I have also spent some time talking with people who themselves have done a fair amount of research and whose lives the dredging project will affect most dramatically.

I believe that not taking a stand on the proposed dredging is somewhat irresponsible on my part. The river is a big part of my life and with a background in biology many customers and friends look to me for an opinion on the issue. The questions to dredge or not to dredge has to be answered by looking at the methodology and the problems it will create for a number of years in the future as well as whether or not it is an effective means of solving a problem. At this time I can see no reason to proceed and would hope the EPA reconsiders it decision.

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