Little tugs conduct a big environmental cleanup on the Hudson River

In 1609, Henry Hudson explored a river whose water was as pure as the name of its source implies. Today, 200 miles of the Hudson River, which flows from Lake Tear of the Clouds in New York's Adirondack Mountains, is one of the largest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund sites in the United States.

The EPA reports that as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were discharged into the Hudson River from 1947 to 1977 by two General Electric (GE) capacitor manufacturing plants at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, 50 miles north of Albany. Discharging the contaminants was not illegal at the time, but became so with the EPA ban on PCBs in 1977. In 1984, the river from Hudson Falls to Battery Park in New York City was classified as a Superfund site.

In 2002, the EPA directed GE to pay for the dredging of 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from 40 miles of the Upper Hudson River. Cashman Dredging & Marine Contracting of Quincy, Mass., is conducting the marine operations.

The number of tugs transiting Lock 7 of the Champlain Canal on the upper river at Fort Edward has increased dramatically since dredging began in June 2011. Granted, at 25 feet in length and 300 hp, the tugs are tiny; but they make up for their size by teaming up, two to a barge, their little wheelhouses peeking up above the bows and sterns of the 190-by-35-foot hopper barges.

The EPA has oversight of the project, which is expected to take seven years to complete, and to cost an estimated $1 billion. Approximately 350 of the 500-person workforce are crewing about 100 vessels comprising tugs, hopper barges, dredges, crew boats, etc.

Phase one was a pilot project designed to determine standards and a safe, efficient process of removing the PCBs. The first phase was completed in 2009, the 400th anniversary of Hudson's journey.

After the EPA ban on PCBs, there followed 25 years of discussion, debate and controversy, primarily over whether to dredge up the PCB-contaminated sediment or let the river and nature do the work. GE flew the flag for nature's way, as did the majority of residents in the communities lining the targeted stretch of the river.

GE argued that dredging would stir PCBs back into the water flow. The residents feared restricted access to the river, and the end of their tranquil quality of life. "Dredging is a process that is hard to keep invisible," said Mark Behan, spokesman for GE.

The EPA and the environmentalists lobbied strongly for dredging, and in the end, won. PCBs are PCBs, and they must go.

"Nature will not break down the PCBs," said Dave King, the director and project coordinator of the EPA's Hudson River Field Office. "They are there, they have been there a very long time and they will continue to be there. They are the source of contamination, so we need to get them out to eliminate that source."

In analyzing the results of phase one, it was determined that dredging re-suspended some of the targeted PCBs. For phase two, the number of dredge passes in a specific area was reduced from as many as five, down to two. The dredges were already using huge clamshell buckets designed for environmental dredging.

"They're going to take bigger bites and fewer of them to minimize re-suspension," said King. "The more often you take a bite, the more possibility you have of stirring up the sediment that will float downstream."

To appease the residents, the dredges are employing hospital-grade generators to minimize the noise and directional lighting contained on the barges for night work. "And the river is open because we've taken steps to make sure boaters are directed around the dredging areas," said Behan. "We also widened a section of the Champlain Canal by 60 feet where the boats are dropping off the dry soil to make sure that boaters could get by."

A dredging plan was developed by gathering and recording the location and depth of 55,000 sediment samples. The dredged material is being barged to a processing facility one mile above Lock 7, where the soil is dried and transported to a federal disposal facility. The extracted water is treated with ultraviolet light and a carbon filtering process and put back into the river system.

Once an area is dredged, confirmation samples are taken to confirm that the PCBs have been removed to EPA standards. Then similar, but clean, sediment is taken from the upper river and laid down over the disturbed bottom. Next, teams of divers armed with indigenous plants fan out and replant the riverbed. "This is a project that has been planned and designed to the most minute detail," said Behan.

King explained that the first 13 miles of dredging, moving downriver from the contamination's source, covers 80 percent of the remediation process and achieves navigational depth in the bargain. The remaining 27 miles will be dredged only in those hot spots with significant levels of PCBs, leaving many areas too shallow for transporting bulk cargo.

The New York State Canal Corp. wants GE to dredge between the hot spots, rendering the 40-mile stretch fit for commercial navigation. Brian Stratton, director, and John Callaghan, deputy director, argue that a patchwork approach doesn't make sense because of the volatility of the river and its ability to move contaminated sediment around and create future hot spots. Stratton contends that taking advantage of the efficiencies inherent in having the dredging equipment in place, and the process already worked out, is an issue of common sense.

King agrees that some re-suspension of the PCBs will occur but claims it is not practical to dredge all 40 miles of the river to 12 to 14 feet.

The Canal Corp., which controls 524 miles of canals, including the Erie Canal and Champlain Canal, is an anomaly in a country were the navigational aspects of the nation's waterways are almost exclusively controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Hence, the Canal Corp. depends on its parent company, the New York Thruway Authority, with its highway toll system, to fund its projects.

"At the moment, deck cargo can navigate the Champlain Canal, but there is a depth and height restriction on petroleum and bulk cargo," said Callaghan, "And at present container-on-barge traffic is restricted."

There is great expectation that the completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2014 will infuse the Atlantic ports and New York's canal system with an increase in container shipping from Asia. "It's a great opportunity," said Stratton.

From GE's point of view, the EPA has approved environmental dredging, not navigational. "And that's the project that we are implementing," said Behan.

King explained that dredging would only take place to navigational depth where the contamination met the federal criteria of one part per million of PCBs in the sediment. "The level of contamination in those areas (between the hot spots) is higher than the state standards for unrestricted disposal, but less than our standards for environmental cleanup," said King.

"Put simply the state regulations are more stringent than the federal ones are, and GE is meeting the requirements of the federal EPA standards," said Rob Goldman, the owner of NYS Marine Highway Transportation, a company, located in Troy, that concentrates on moving specialized cargo on the canal system. Specialized cargo is too big or too heavy for truck or rail transport.

"With respect to transporting bulk commodities, local tug operators can't operate profitably moving cargo south from Lake Champlain unless the canal is dredged to project depth, at least 12 feet," said Goldman.

"The locks were built for trade-carrying barges that can transport more and larger cargo less expensively than rail or truck," said Stratton. "And with less impact on the environment."

Goldman, too, insists that dredging for navigation is essential for moving commercial cargos and big equipment to power plants and other big projects along the canal system. Goldman goes on to say that commodities such as woodchips, aggregates and others, located in the Champlain Valley, will become more valuable as the present supplies located near larger urban centers are depleted. "Unless the North (Champlain) Canal is returned to project depth, we are not competitive with other transportation modes such as truck and rail."

Stratton states that it is his and the Canal Corp.'s mission to convince the EPA to encourage GE to dredge for navigation, "while they are doing the remediation and prevent the threat of lawsuits down the road," said Stratton.

"We need federal support. The state does not have the money. We estimate that it will take approximately $100 million to do the (extra navigational) dredging which is a small percentage of the total of around one billion," said Stratton.

While the debate churns on in the town halls along the canal and in the corridors of Albany and Washington, those little tugs — purpose-built by Marine Inland Fabricators, of Panama City, Fla., for GE — keep moving those big barges through Lock 7, round the clock.

"I also worked on phase one," said Capt. Kevin Wagner leaning out of the wheelhouse window of the tug Cushing at Lock 7. "At the time, I was a little iffy about the two tug arrangement on these barges, but it's great for this type of work. We've got flanking rudders for steering while backing up (the tug on the stern provides the power and the tug on the bow steers). It's like having a barge with a bow thruster. And once we clear the lock downriver, we can turn back up channel without having to spin everything around. And this is good work for nice people."

By Professional Mariner Staff