Excellent article on the history of pollution in the Hudson River. Exactly what we were working for when we all came together to stop the dumping of tritiated water. Please share with interested others.
The Hudson River has been used as an industrial sewer for centuries and thus has played a prominent role in the history of environmental activism in the United States. But long before the toxic dumping began, indigenous peoples up and down the river believed they were part of the natural world, protecting this body of water that provided them with life-giving resources. They rightly acknowledged that humans were part of nature, respectfully interacting with plants and animals and the land and water that surrounded them.
Contrary to this way of thinking was the view of European settlers, who thought that humans were apart from nature and that they had the right to exert domination over it by clear-cutting forests for timber and fuel, building factories and cities and domesticating plants and animals. This domination over nature and the lack of respect for critical natural resources that humans depend on was, and continues to be, collateral damage that some people are willing to overlook in the quest to drive economic growth.
By the early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was well underway, and increasing numbers of people moved into small towns and cities along the Hudson, putting demands on the river for water and food, but also polluting the waterway with their waste. Waterborne diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever were commonplace in this time when indoor plumbing and wastewater treatment had not yet emerged.
But the Hudson River and its surrounding valley flourished economically at this time, being at the center of America’s steam power revolution. Factories sprang up along its banks throughout the 19th century, bringing forges and smelting plants, tanneries, textile mills, dye houses, slaughterhouses, soap and candle factories, all spewing chemicals and industrial wastes into the Hudson as well as those tributaries that flowed into it.
This type of pollution had an impact on all aquatic species and plant life living in the river as well as the quality of drinking water for a large number of communities, especially in the 153 miles from Troy to New York City where the river is considered an estuary, feeling the Atlantic Ocean’s tidal pulse and changing the direction of the river’s flow from north with a rising tide and seaward (south) with a falling tide.
The 20th century saw continued pollution of the Hudson, but none so egregious as the release of approximately 1.3 million pounds of PCBs over a 30-year period by the General Electric Company north of Albany. PCBs are responsible for a large range of human health problems, including cancer, as well as contamination of fish and other aquatic species and wildlife, including birds.
The EPA designated the 200-mile contaminated portion of the river as a Superfund site in 1984. Extensive remediation, including river bottom sediment removal was implemented and continued until just recently when the EPA announced it would not force GE to continue its dredging operations – a decision strongly opposed by environmental health organizations nationwide.
And now there is the problem with the decommissioning of the old Indian Point nuclear power plant in the Northern Westchester river town of Buchanan. When the plant was in operation, it constantly violated the Clean Water Act because of its large withdrawals of water from the Hudson, which killed millions of fish and other aquatic species every year. Now that it has finally been shut down, large quantities of radioactive spent fuel rods and radioactive water need to be removed, and we are looking down the barrel of perhaps the biggest threat yet to the Hudson: What will happen with all that radioactive waste?
At Indian Point, the company performing the decommissioning work is called Holtec International. Its plan for the one million gallons of radioactive wastewater? Dump it into the Hudson River. The wastewater at Indian Point, like Fukushima in Japan and other nuclear power plants around the world, is contaminated with a radioactive isotope of hydrogen called Tritium. Tritium has a half-life of about 12 years, which means that in 12 years, half of the radioactive atoms will decay. In another 12 years, another half will decay, and so on. Holtec has no technology to remove a single atom of the radioactive tritium contamination. Tritium was created as a byproduct inside the Indian Point reactors.
Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, stated in a recent presentation focusing on Indian Point:
“The age of nuclear power is winding down, but the age of nuclear waste is just beginning. Welcome to the brave new world of human-made radioactive waste. It is a toxic legacy that will last for a hundred thousand years and more, because no one knows how to turn off radioactivity. Chronic exposure to radioactivity is harmful to all living things even in small amounts, causing cancers and other diseases. It also damages the reproductive abilities of all species. The only thing we can do is keep it out of the environment. Keep it out of the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.”
In August, New York Gov. Cathy Hochul signed legislation that prohibits discharges of any radiological substance into the Hudson River in connection with the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant. Holtec has not yet committed to obeyng the law, contending that the tritiated water is not harmful.
Halfway around the world, engineers at the crippled Fukushima Daichi power plant have commenced a 30-year process of dumping 1.3 metric tons of tritiated water into the Pacific Ocean, despite the objections of Japanese fishermen as well as the governments of South Korea, China, and several Pacific Island nations, and many independent scientists. China has banned the importation of all seafood from Japan.
Back on the Hudson River, Holtec has quietly floated the idea of evaporating the tritiated water – like making it disappear. Oh, if only it was so easy….
Edwards speaks out strongly against this “solution,” saying “evaporation of tritium-contaminated water, called ‘tritiated water’ results in airborne radioactive vapor. When it condenses, it comes back to Earth as radioactive dew drops, or radioactive rain drops, or radioactive snow flakes. Breathing in radioactive water vapor is much more biologically damaging than drinking radioactive water or eating food with organically bound tritium. The only safe solution is to store tritium contaminated water in stainless steel drums that will last about 100 years. By that time, 99% of the tritium atoms will have disintegrated harmlessly.”
According to Edwards there is no reason why the tritiated water from Indian Point could not be stored for a century or more rather than dumping it into the Hudson River. As he says, a river is not a radioactive waste facility.
Several years ago I helped produce a film about fracking which I would like to think influenced Gov. Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking in the state. In the film, the Rev. Robert White, made the point eloquently: “Only those who have great profits to gain are willing to jeopardize what the rest of us have to lose.”