PCB chemicals hurt Hudson River fish

As the sun sets over the Appalachians this past summer and the gaff sloop Clearwater cuts cleanly through the Hudson River, the sound of “Which Side Are You On?” travels through the air. Clearwater, described as a classroom, laboratory, and environmental flagship all in one, was launched in 1969 by Pete Seeger with the goal of investigating and conducting research on contamination of the Hudson and preserving the waterway through science education and outreach.

30 miles upstream of the Clearwater, I reel in the largest small-mouth bass I’ve ever seen, but to no avail for my hunger; it feels like my stomach asks my brain, which side are you on? Ever since the contamination of the Hudson River at two General Electric capacitor manufacturing plants, roughly 40 miles north of Troy, fishing in the Hudson has become mind over matter.

Toxic polychlorinated biphenyls had been used extensively throughout the 20th century in the electronics industry due to their dielectric properties and high thermal and chemical stabilities, and now they have accumulated in the environment due, in part, to those same properties. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that as much as 1.3 million pounds of PCBs were released into the environment from the GE plants while business was conducted as usual, which ended in 1977 with the enactment of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

PCBs are a nuisance to our environment for numerous reasons. Since PCBs are not very soluble in water, they precipitate and fall to the sediment where they persist for a long time, failing to degrade, and being absorbed by fish populations assumed to be in quasi-steady state (under some models) with the environment. Through biomagnification, PCBs can accumulate in the tissues of fish, especially the larger fish in the food chain. As one eats these fish, the PCBs—which are structurally analogous to thyroid hormones—can give rise to neural and reproductive disorders, as they bind with greater affinity than hormones to the hormone receptors and can cross the placenta. Direct exposure to and consumption of PCBs, as well as ecological changes that can arise from their lack of containment, pose serious risks to our quality of life.

The EPA issued a statute in 2002 wherein GE was to resolve the contaminated sediment from the waterway, to minimize PCB buildup in fish, and lower PCB levels to below 0.5 parts per billion in accordance with safe drinking water standards. The $1 billion project, started in 2009, consists of removing and drying the polluted sediment (a process known as dredging), transporting the contaminated sludge to a suitable landfill, and capping remaining sediment off from wildlife exposure. Extensive field studies are required alongside the dredging to ensure the unavoidable agitation of the sediment does not disperse PCBs further from the contamination sites, and even yet the results are not certain. The cleanup is estimated to last five to seven years.

While the United States continues to produce near 30 billion plastic water bottles per year, we are robbed of the water and the fish in our own backyard. The Clearwater helped facilitate the lobby for the Toxic Substances Control Act, and groups like this that call for stricter pollution control of our nations’ waterways offers optimism for the future of the Hudson, and leave me fishing in peace (and maybe an empty stomach).