For 20 to 30 years General Electric, with a permit from the state of New York , dumped water with small amounts of polychlorinated hiphenyis (PCBs) in the Hudson River near Troy, N.Y.
It took years for scientists to discover that the trace amounts GE was dumping were accumulating and becoming a health hazard. By then, the PCBs had floated down the Hudson and had begun to show up in the bottom of New York harbor.
As a result of pollution such as this, tough rules were enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent dredging of harbors, such as New York's unless the spoil, or dredged material, was properly disposed of.
Not only have scientists discovered PCBs in the muck at the bottom of the harbor, but also lead, cadmium, mercury, and polynuclear aeromatic hydrocarbons, petroleum constituents said to be carcinogens.
According to Kenneth Kamlet, deputy director of legal affairs for the National Wildlife Federation, these pollutants are "the tip of the iceberg." Many other pollutants, he points out, have not been looked for.
Mr. Kamlet says, "It's hard to say how significant to our health or environment these pollutants are because the Food and Drug Administration hasn't gotten around to finding out the tolerance level for humans."
Although New York Harbour is considered by environmentalists to be one of the most polluted harbors, Mr. Kamlet says it is probably not the worst. Rather, he says, it's just that "the Corps of Army Engineers has been thumbing its nose at the legal requirements."
The corps, for its part, denies that it is ignoring legal requirements. If anything, says an Engineers spokesman, the corps is accused of being too proenvironmental.
Another harbor with environmental problems, Mr. Kemlet says, is the Houston Ship Channel. As a major port for tankers and a waterway used by many chemical companies, it as probably been badly contaminated.
In some tests conducted in Corvallis, Ore., Mr. Kamlet says scientists found there were at least four estuaries which had more toxic material in them than the Raritan River, an estuary which feeds into the New York bight.
Unfortunately, the scientific and environmental community remains divided on the best way to remedy the New York Harbor situation. Mr. Kamlet says his organization has decided the best course of action would be the dredging of the harbor and the dumping of the spoil on Hoffman and Swineburn Islands, two small islands off of Staten Island. If the material was held in place by dikes, the National Wildlife Foundation believes, it would be environmentally safe. A second option, he says, would be to dump the dredged material on land considered barren. The Mitre Corporation has identified various sites within 500 miles of the harbor that it says could be used.
However, Dr. H. James Simpson, associate professor of Geological Sciences at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., believes that the first priority should be to remove the PCBs so the continued pollution of the harbor is alleviated.
"The emphasis is wrong," he states. "The federal government should be helping New York state and city deal with a large-scale problem. The most logical solution is to make a contained landfill disposal site away form the population centers and be as careful as possible in putting the PCBs there." Until the PCBs are dealt with at the source, he says, the maintenance of the harbors should be continued as they are now; with the spoil being dumped in the New York bight.
Mr. Klamet says his principal concern about continued dumping of dredged material is that it is going to "steadily add to the contamination burden of the fish and shellfish caught and consumed by residents of the area." Although he admits that the FDA levels are rarely exceeded by average consumers of fish, he believes that people who eat a lot of fish may exceed the FDA limits.
However, Dr. Simpson says, to dump the dredged material near a large population center where it may contaminate the ground water doesn't make sense either.