Recovery Faces Perilous Waters After a Dramatic Comeback, A Difficult Future
Posted online: Sunday, 20 September 1998
|To Ray Beecher of Coxsackie the Hudson River is like an old man haunted by a childhood of bare-fisted beatings. The Hudson, Beecher can tell you, has overcome its share of pain, dispensed by abusive factories, overflowing sewer pipes, noxious chemical spills and years of official indifference. |
"We don't see the oil on the river anymore, like you used to," said Beecher, 81, squinting from his sloping front yard into the river's muddy expanse. "I'd have to say it's gotten cleaner."
The Hudson has, indeed, healed its deepest wounds. Gone are the rotting animal carcasses, flotillas of raw sewage and whorls of oil that, by the 1960s, had transformed the river into an open sewer.
The Hudson is now the cleanest and healthiest it's been in decades.
But the recovery is not over. In some ways, the Hudson is still an environmental mess. And PCBs are not the only culprit.
As it flows further into its post-recovery era and restakes a claim as an economic force and recreational resource, the Hudson must vanquish a battery of more insidious foes: industrial and agricultural wastes that have made the river and its tributaries some of the nation's most toxic; over-polluting sewage systems; and unregulated tons of urban runoff and leaking hazardous waste flowing through its watershed each year.
No one really knows how much pollution pervades the 13,300-square-mile Hudson River basin, the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
"If all this pollution continues to go on," said John Cronin, the official Hudson Riverkeeper, who is charged with protecting it, "the Hudson River will die a death by a thousand cuts."
Here are some multiple threats: Polychlorinated biphenyls. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PCBs probably cause cancer in people. The chemical has rendered 200 miles of the lower Hudson one of the largest Superfund toxic-waste sites in the nation. After eight years of study, the EPA is homing in on a historic, if controversial, decision whether to dredge the river to remove the chemicals (see graphic). Industry and agriculture. Scientists are only now becoming aware of how deeply heavy metals and pesticides are nested in the basin. A recent federal study found that each of 44 urban rivers and streams tested in the Hudson watershed contained cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel and zinc in levels that exceed state health standards for aquatic life. The report, published in April, also found traces of weed and bug killers in 39 of 46 waterways, including several in the Capital Region. Levels of DDT, a pesticide banned in the 1970s, exceeded state health standards in most city-bound streams. Legal pollution. Companies and municipalities pollute the Hudson on an elaborate honor system. But a Times Union investigation found that that system is routinely abused and that most violators are never punished. The Hudson's biggest violator of these pollution limits: government. Illegal and unregulated pollution. The largest and least-studied supply of pollutants to the Hudson River comes from what are known as ''non-point'' sources: leaking landfills, abandoned factories, overflowing storm sewers and contaminated runoff from farms, roads and parking lots. Added together, non-point sources account for about 95 percent of all pollution in the Hudson, experts say.
It is a growing curse not only to boaters and swimmers but also to business: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $ 20 million over five years to stem the flow of toxic metals into its harbor. Too poisonous to dispose of easily, contaminated sediment prevents the dredging of the harbor, leaving America's largest oil port too shallow for the largest and most lucrative container ships.
''Pollution is both the enemy of the fish and the ships,'' said Tom Wakeman, dredging program manager for the Port Authority. ''It's costing us money; it's limiting our options.''
A multifaceted river Marking the Hudson River's comeback, President Clinton in July named it one of just 14 American Heritage Rivers. The honor was a seal of approval for a river officially recuperated. But the Hudson remains vulnerable, burdened by its starring role in so many contradictory human theaters.
To 80 percent of the 3.8 million people who live in its watershed, the Hudson and its tributaries are a source of drinking water.
To flourishing crowds of pleasure boaters, water-skiers and anglers, the river is a vast recreational vista in which to sail, swim and fish.
To hundreds of species of fish, birds, plants and other wildlife, the Hudson is home and habitat.
To industry, the river remains a receptacle for pollution, the byproducts of modern society.
''That is the Hudson's destiny,'' Riverkeeper Cronin said. ''To be all things to all people.''
To keep the scales from tipping the wrong way, Gov. George Pataki's administration has earmarked millions of dollars from the state's 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act to help the river. But the Hudson still falls victim to politics.
During this year's budget negotiations, for instance, Pataki sought $ 7 million for the Hudson River Estuary Management Action Plan, a program to protect wildlife and spawn fish. Assembly Democrats offered $ 6 million. Both sides refused to compromise, and the plan was eventually dropped.
Yet, even stacks of money cannot safeguard 3 billion gallons of river water, the amount cities, farms and industry borrow from the Hudson watershed each day. Most of the water is returned, but it is not quite the same.
Industry and agriculture Among the Hudson River's most stalwart defenders are its forests. Sixty-two percent of the basin is forested; no region is more heavily wooded than the river's uppermost reaches. Scientists credit the dense cover as a great natural filter that has kept many pollutants, including acidified Adirondack rainwater, out of the upper Hudson.
The 4,400 square miles of the basin that are in urban areas -- including the Capital Region -- or in agricultural areas -- including the Mohawk River's rich alluvial terrace -- are much more polluted, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study released in April.
Based on water and sediment samples from 46 rivers and streams in the Hudson watershed, the three-year study found that two geographic zones -- the Albany-Troy metropolitan area and the region from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan -- were contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and poisonous organic compounds in concentrations that ranked among the highest 25 percent of any watershed in the nation.
The highest levels of PCBs in fish anywhere in the basin were found in carp and suckerfish pulled from the Mohawk near Utica, USGS data showed. Of 51 Hudson tributaries tested, the Mohawk, which nearly doubles the Hudson's flow at Cohoes, was found to carry unparalleled concentrations of manure, fertilizers and semivolatile organic compounds, the byproducts of industrial processes.
These accretions in tributaries are significant because, ecologists say, the Hudson is the sum of the watershed it drains, an artery fed by hundreds of veins and capillaries, one protean organism.
Troubling, therefore, are the hundreds of toxic leaks that still sully its waters.
Lurking within the river's basin are more than 120 Class 2 inactive hazardous waste sites, representing pollution the DEC deems "a significant threat to the public health or environment." (Class 1 denotes the most dangerous sites; Class 5 the least.) About 30 Class 2 sites are in the four-county Capital Region -- one of the state's densest concentrations of hazardous waste.
Sites in Albany, Colonie and Watervliet defile local groundwater and streams with mercury, arsenic, DDT, PCBs and other chemicals. (See chart, page A6.)
Legal pollution There is no diminishing the recovery of the Hudson River, which posted one of the greatest environmental comebacks in New York history. Much of the credit can be traced to the Clean Water Act of 1972.
That seminal legislation set the utopian goal of eliminating all discharges to American rivers and lakes by 1985. It also legalized pollution discharges, by forcing states, for the first time, to monitor and enforce pollution limits.
The state DEC sets dozens of parameters for substances discharged by some 10,000 facilities statewide. Each facility must, by law, monitor its own discharges and forward lab-certified reports, including violations, to DEC headquarters in Colonie.
Pollution in New York, as in other states, is essentially an elaborate honor system.
"We have the fox watching the henhouse," said DEC's Hudson River Steward Jack McLean, steering his 20-foot patrol boat over the Hudson's black-green waters near Schuylerville last month. "But it seems to work."
Thousands of times last year and this year, however, it failed. A Times Union analysis of monthly discharge reports revealed 3,921 violations of state pollution parameters in the Hudson's watershed last year, an average of about nine violations per facility.
Several hundred of these were failures by permit holders to file reports. But 1,905 violations reflect breached pollution parameters and excess flows of more than 20 substances, from acetone and ammonia to xylene and zinc.
Most of these violations were minor; hundreds of others, however, indicated profuse releases of sewage and toxics at levels both illegal and incongruous to the notion of a rejuvenating Hudson River.
Municipal sewage treatment plants in the booming Hudson Valley are among the most notorious polluters. Many sewage plants are reaching the end of their expected life spans, according to a 1996 DEC report on state water quality. Without a $ 10 billion overhaul, water-quality gains over the past few decades may be lost, and other pollution sources ''will become insignificant when compared to the newly recurring sources,'' the report said.
At the Yorktown Heights plant in Westchester County, sewage levels exceeded its 1.5 million-gallons-per-day intake limit for 20 of the past 30 months, records show, and outgoing concentrations of chlorine and copper were double, triple and quadruple what is legally permitted.
In Ulster County, the Wallkill Sewer District has recorded 47 violations this year, including emissions of 60 times the manganese, 25 times the copper and 12 times the aluminum levels allowed. The plant discharges into the Wallkill River, which empties into the Hudson.
In Putnam County, the state Department of Transportation's Rest Area No. 5, which drains from Interstate 684 into Holly Stream, committed 31 violations for water acidity, minimum oxygen levels, fecal coliform and 12 months of excessive chlorine expulsions last year.
Private companies and school districts also contravene their limits.
Last year, Mountain View Estates, in Greene County, flushed 30 times greater concentrations of chlorine into the East Kill than the state permits. Mahopac High School in Putnam County violated chlorine limits all of last year. In April and May, the school pumped out nearly 10 times more fecal coliform than is legal.
Yorktown Heights recently agreed to pay a $ 5,000 fine for its lapses; most facilities are not caught.
''DEC is not real eager to go after municipal sewage plants. It's not politically palatable,'' said Carl Copeland, co-director of the Pace University's Environmental Litigation Clinic. Through federal lawsuits, the clinic seeks to force sewage plants to clean up their acts.
Yet, even a regulatory colossus like the Department of Environmental Conservation cannot stop overwhelmed Hudson Valley sewage plants from churning out violations. Said Joe DiMura, the head of the DEC division that grants pollution permits: ''It's kind of 'out of sight, out of mind' for a lot of these communities.''
Perhaps not for much longer. As the valley's population of more than 2 million -- a third of whom arrived in the past 30 years -- continues to grow faster than expected, many aging sewage systems are already operating near their limits.
The state has funneled $ 4.7 million in environmental bond act money to 12 plants in the Hudson Valley, and loaned millions more to others, but it is not enough.
''Government usually doesn't do anything until there's a crisis,'' said George Hansen, a 30-year veteran of DEC's permit enforcement division. ''I suspect that will happen again.''
Non-point Source Pollution: Raw sewage is repugnant, but it does not represent the Hudson River's most vexing pollution problem. That title is reserved for what scientists call Non-point Source Pollution, NPS.
NPS is the ooze washing off mall parking lots and the toxic metals buried in New York Harbor. It is cadmium car batteries leaking from antediluvian landfills and cow dung plopped into a country stream. It is more than 95 percent of the pollution in the river.
''Apart from PCBs,'' said Copeland, ''Non-point Source Pollution is the biggest challenge to cleaning up the Hudson River.''
During rain or snowfalls, all the oil, grease, salt and automobile wastes from Crossgates Mall's parking lots, for example, flows into a detention pond, through storm sewers under the Northway, to Stuyvesant Plaza, under Route 20, into another storm sewer system, to some open ditches that flow into the west branch of the Kromma Kill. It eventually ends up in the Hudson River.
''The stuff that maybe you can't smell or can't see, that's the stuff we're worried about now,'' said Patrick Phillips, a hydrologist who co-authored the U.S. Geological Survey report on the Hudson basin. ''What's the cumulative effect?''
That is the central question behind the Contaminant Assessment and Reduction Project, a $ 30 million joint venture spearheaded by the Port Authority in New York City to detoxify its harbor.
Facing estuary-wide toxic contamination that has stymied its ability to deepen the harbor, the Port Authority decided to fund an unprecedented study to locate, quantify and stanch their flow. A few weeks ago, DEC researchers began taking sediment samples throughout the Lower Hudson.
The project, known by its acronym, CARP, represents the harbor's best hope to save its business -- and its estuary.
''The port can't survive if you can't dredge,'' said Dennis Suszkowski, science director of the Hudson River Foundation, a Manhattan nonprofit agency working on the project. ''All this has tremendous implications to the overall ecology of the estuary.''
Post-recovery river Indeed, the river's horizon is chock full of risky business. As development continues its tear through the Hudson Valley northward, open spaces that buffer the riverbanks shrink. As science becomes ever more powerful, it remedies some vexing pollution problems -- sewage treatment itself was a revolution -- but spawns others. "People are beginning to talk about hormones," Phillips, the USGS hydrologist said. "Estrogen is occurring in sewage. That could affect people and that could affect fish." Those studies, however, are still a long way off. For now, the state is funneling all the resources it can muster toward expensive solutions to sewage, toxic waste and unregulated runoff, said Environmental Conservation Commissioner John Cahill.
''Can we still do more? Yes,'' Cahill said in an interview Thursday. ''Non-point-source (pollution) still poses a challenge. But thanks to the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, we're starting to address those concerns.''
Asked which threats still loom most heavily over the Hudson, Cahill chose instead to talk about how far the river has come.
Last weekend, he took the opportunity to inspect the Hudson firsthand, he said, during his annual three-mile swim back and forth across the Hudson, south of the Tappan Zee bridge. ''I'm amazed how much it improves each year,'' he said.
The Hudson River Chronicles the Hudson River was an environmental embarrassment for years. Now the most obvious pollution is gone. But less visible threats loom, and they defy easy solution. The Hudson River Chronicles the Hudson River was an environmental embarrassment for years. Now the most obvious pollution is gone. But less visible threats loom, and they defy easy solution.
- The Times Union (Albany, NY)