As General Electric seeks to close the books on a $1.7 billion cleanup of the upper Hudson River, a new fight is simmering over the company's legacy of toxic pollution in the region.
This time, the focus is not on whether the fish are safe to eat, but whether children are safe playing in riverside parks and backyards that are prone to frequent flooding. Boston-based GE has agreed to spend $20 million testing soil in the river's flood plain along the 40-mile-long stretch of river where it completed dredging 2.75 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment in 2015.
But it hasn't agreed to remove soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, which are suspected of causing cancer and other health problems. That will require a legal agreement negotiated with the Environmental Protection Agency.
An actual cleanup project in flood plain areas is at least five years away, after soil testing now underway is completed, followed by a human health impact study and designing a cleanup plan.
In the waterfront village of Schuylerville, site of key events in the Revolutionary War, the protracted process of initiating a flood plain cleanup plan doesn't sit well with residents and officials who have been trying for years to get state or federal agencies to remove contaminated sediment from an old section of the Champlain Canal that connects to the river.
"In our estimation, the EPA made a huge error when it didn't include the canal in the Hudson River dredging because they said it was standing water," said Schuylerville Mayor Dan Carpenter. "It's hydrologically connected to the river and was flowing when the PCBs were released" from GE plants upstream more than 40 years ago.
Carpenter and residents want the EPA to order GE to clean up the canal now. Julie Stokes, who represents the local chamber of commerce on EPA's Community Advisory Group for the Hudson River Superfund cleanup project, said there's a window of opportunity to do that in the next few weeks.
The EPA is completing its second five-year review of the Hudson River dredging and may soon act on GE's request that the agency formally declare the project complete, which would diminish its ability to order the company to undertake additional cleanup actions.
"Our position is, don't close the books on that until you fix this problem," said Dave Roberts, a retired contractor in Schuylerville who's helping create a heritage tourism center beside the canal.
The banks of the mile-long ribbon of water in the heart of the village sometimes overflow during thunderstorms and flood adjacent properties, including nearby Fort Hardy Park. Residents fear floodwaters will breach a dike and carry contaminated silt that has accumulated so deep that the canal is a cattail-filled swamp in some places.
"Should the dike fail, all that goop would flow right down into the park," Roberts said.
Fort Hardy Park is not only a popular recreation area but also a significant historic site. It's where Gen. John Burgoyne's defeated British troops lay down their arms in surrender in 1777, giving the Americans their first major victory.
GE invested $1.7 billion in the river dredging project, which EPA has said has met its goals. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and environmental groups disagree with the EPA and say too much PCB-contaminated sediment remains in the river.
In the flood plain phase of the cleanup, GE has analyzed more than 7,000 samples from 3,000 locations so far, company spokesman Mark Behan said. About 80 percent of samples showed no PCBs or very low levels.
In areas with higher PCB levels that are used by the public, GE has done about 60 urgent projects including covering contaminated areas at a park and a kayak launch with rocks and sand.
After DEC's tests over the summer showed elevated PCB levels in the old canal, the agency requested that EPA do further sampling to determine if such an emergency action is needed to protect people who use the park.
An EPA spokeswoman said GE took samples from the old canal and areas susceptible to flooding, including the Fort Hardy Park, over the past week, but results aren't available yet.