Extraordinary estuary

Mapping the Hudson Estuary's submerged lands, JW Ladd et al.

PCBs in the Hudson River: Role of sediments, EA Garvey et al.

Hudson River restoration: Role of natural resources trustees, TM Brosnan et al.

Ecosystem indicators for Lake Ontario, F Luckey et al.

Effect of lower chlorine dosage at Buffalo WWTP, KN Irvine et al.

Livestock waste management and lake rehabilitation, CB Lind

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      Spring 2002 — Vol. 32, No. 1

Hudson River restoration: Role of natural resources trustees

by Thomas M. Brosnan, Larry Gumaer, Kathryn Jahn, and Lisa Rosman

Source: USEPA
GE capacitor plant at Hudson Falls


Historic and continuing discharges of PCBs from two industrial plants have contaminated natural resources of the Hudson River for about 200 mi. Trustee government agencies have begun a natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) to ascertain the appropriate type and scale of action necessary to restore natural resources injured by this contamination.


From the 1940s to 1977, two electrical capacitor manufacturing plants located at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, NY discharged up to 1,330,000 lb of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to the Hudson River (USEPA 2000). PCBs are hydrophobic and readily bind to sediment where they are available to enter the food web; fractions dissolved in the water column are also bioavailable. PCBs pose human health risks and can have many adverse effects on wildlife (Eisler 1986, Eisler and Belisle 1996).

Data collected since 1969 reveal that sediment, surface water, ground water, floodplains, and a variety of biota in the Hudson River environment are contaminated with PCBs. PCB oils continue to leach from the fractured bedrock beneath the Hudson Falls plant. Contaminated sediments in the upper river remain a significant source of PCBs to the entire river environment at least as far south as New York Harbor where about half of the PCB contamination is derived from the two capacitor plants in the upper river (USEPA 2000).

USEPA has designated two-thirds (~200 miles) of the Hudson River—from Hudson Falls to the Battery in New York City—as a Superfund site. USEPA (2000) has determined that this contamination poses unacceptable human health and ecological risks and has proposed a remedy that would remove 2.65 million yd³ of contaminated sediment from approximately 40 mi of the upper Hudson River between Ft. Edward and the Federal Dam at Troy.
Source: USEPA
Locator map for Hudson River features

The Hudson River valley is a unique and nationally significant ecological, cultural, and economic resource. The valley provides breeding, feeding, nursery, and migratory services for up to 206 species of fish, 143 species of resident and migratory birds, and many other species. Sixty-four animal and plant species are listed as threatened, endangered, rare, or of special concern (USEPA 2000). Thirty-four areas have been designated Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats; four locations are included in a National Estuarine Research Reserve.

In recognition of the role that the Hudson River plays in maintaining commercially important fish species, it has been designated as Essential Fish Habitat by the National Marine Fisheries Service. In addition, the Hudson River Valley below Troy is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the entire Hudson River has been designated as an American Heritage River.

Role of trustees

Superfund [§107(f) of CERCLA as amended, 42 U.S.C. §9607(f), §311(f)(5)], the federal Clean Water Act, and other applicable federal and state laws name federal and state authorities that may act on behalf of the public as natural resource trustees. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are the designated trustees of the Hudson River's natural resources.
Source: USEPA
Remnant Deposit 5 and location of former Ft. Edward dam. Rogers Island in background.

Trustees are stewards of the public's natural resources and are responsible to hold these resources in trust for the public and future generations. As part of this responsibility, trustees may pursue claims for natural resource damages for injury to, destruction of, or loss of publicly held natural resources resulting from the discharge of hazardous substances to the environment. Trustees do not seek compensation for private party claims. Claims may be pursued against those responsible for the discharges.

The formal process by which trustees evaluate the effects of chemical contamination on natural resources is known as a natural resource damage assessment (NRDA). The trustees' goal is to restore injured natural resources and compensate the public for lost use. To implement their goal, the trustees develop and implement appropriate restoration projects.

Using the NRDA process, the trustees will:

—Assess the effects of PCB contamination on the Hudson's natural resources
—Identify and evaluate alternatives for:

  1. Returning injured resources to baseline (that is, the condition of the resource in the absence of the release)
  2. Compensating for the lost resources from the time they were injured until restoration to baseline.
—Implement the restoration projects.

USEPA and the trustees

USEPA and the trustees have distinct, though complementary, objectives at a hazardous waste site. USEPA's focus is on cleaning up or containing the hazardous substances and protecting human health and the environment from further harm. The trustees' goal is to develop restoration projects that will compensate for past, current, and future harm.

The trustees have worked closely with USEPA to develop a remedy that will maximize restoration of trustee resources to baseline conditions and minimize ongoing or residual injuries. USEPA's proposed remedial plan is projected to remove over 100,000 lb of PCBs from some of the most contaminated portions of the upper Hudson (USEPA 2000). Even if this plan were fully implemented, however, injuries to natural resources (for example in the form of fish advisories) would continue for many years (USEPA 2000).

Preliminary assessments of injuries

USDOI regulations (43 CFR 11) provide guidance on definitions and methods to assess injuries to natural resources. Generally these resources are injured if:

  1. The concentration of a hazardous substance exceeds
  2. government criteria or standards set to protect the use of the resource by people or wildlife—for example, issuance of fish advisories, or exceeding water quality standards [43 CFR 11.62(b)(1)]

  3. The hazardous substance causes a measurable
  4. adverse change to the resource—for example, causing cancer, reproductive, and other effects in biota [43 CFR 11.62(f)(1)(i)].

As a first step, the trustees are conducting literature reviews and making initial assessments of the scope, extent, and severity of potential exposure and injuries. Some of the preliminary injury information that has been assembled to-date is presented next.

1. PCBs in Hudson River natural resources

Thousands of samples collected by several entities document the widespread PCB contamination of sediment, water, soil, and biota (NOAA 2001, NYSDEC 2001). The trustees are assessing these data to ascertain if they exceed government standards or criteria set to protect uses of these resources by wildlife and humans. For example, preliminary analysis of data from thousands of water samples collected over the past 25 years shows a widespread temporal and spatial violation of New York State water quality standards.
Source: USEPA
Lower Hudson River from the Palisades

Contaminated resources such as river sediment, surface water, ground water, and floodplain soils can also serve as pathways of contamination to biota. PCB concentrations of upper River sediments range up to 4000 mg/kg and generally exceed guidelines established to be protective of the environment (USEPA 2000). Ground water beneath both industrial plants is contaminated at levels that exceed State standards. Finally, recent sampling of upper river floodplain soils revealed a range of <0.011 to 360 mg/kg PCBs (NYSDEC 2001). These data indicate that aquatic and terrestrial habitats of the Hudson River are contaminated with PCBs at levels that may harm wildlife or harm the uses of those wildlife by humans (for example, as food from fishing or hunting).

In a preliminary effort to examine the movement of PCBs from contaminated habitat into the food chain, information on exposure to a variety of biota is being assembled. The table below summarizes several recently observed maximum PCB concentrations in Hudson River biota. USEPA found that wildlife that eat PCB-contaminated fish from the Hudson River are at risk and will remain at risk for many years (USEPA 2000). The trustees are evaluating these studies and other data and contemplating the design of studies to assess potential adverse effects from these exposures.
Recent maximum PCB concentrations in Hudson River biota (mg/kg)
Animal (# of species) Tissue/organ PCBs Collected
Upper river      
Fish (21)* Fillet 1.5-445 1998-99
Macroinvertebrates (3)* Whole body 10-20 1999
Tree swallow** Adult, whole body† 114 1994-95
Tree swallow** Egg 77 1994-95
Great blue heron** Fat 220 1998
Blue bird** Nestling, whole body† 78 1995
Snapping turtle* Adipose 3091 1998, 2000
Short-tail shrew* Whole body 38 2000
Mink* Liver 3.3 2000
River otter* Liver 22.5 2000
Lower river      
Fish (22)* Fillet 0.84-25 1998-99
Bald eagle** Egg†† 62 1998
Bald eagle** Adult-plasma 14 1998

 *NYSDEC, 2001.
**Swallow, heron and blue bird data from Anne Secord, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, personal communication, Apr 2001, Bald eagle data from Peter Nye, NYSDEC and Anne Secord, USFWS personal communication, Nov 2000.
 †Beak, feet and stomach contents removed.
††Not corrected for moisture loss.
“Catch and release” fishing remains the rule on about 40 miles of upper Hudson River between Hudson Falls and Troy Dam because of PCB contamination.

2. Injury to fishery

USDOI regulations provide that a natural resource injury exists whenever a hazardous substance is present in fish flesh at concentrations sufficient to exceed levels for which an appropriate state health agency has issued directives to limit or ban consumption [43 CFR 11.62(f)(1)]. Since 1975, high levels of PCBs in fish have led New York State officials to close recreational and commercial fisheries and to issue advisories restricting the consumption of fish taken from the Hudson (USDOI et al. 2001).

From 1976 until 1995, recreational fishing was prohibited for 40 miles of the upper Hudson between Hudson Falls and the Troy Dam. This reach is presently designated as catch-and-release only, and possession of fish remains illegal. Several important commercial fisheries below Troy Dam have also been closed or severely restricted for nearly 25 years. Consumption advisories have been in effect concurrently for 200 miles downstream of Hudson Falls (USDOI et al. 2001). In particular, from 1976 to the present, all species have been subject to a no-consumption advisory directed to women of childbearing age and all children under age 15. Many of these closures and advisories continue today. PCB concentrations in fish remain one to three orders of magnitude greater than levels identified as protective of human health or the environment (USEPA 2000).


Exposure data reveal levels of contamination that have the potential to injure biota. Fishing bans, consumption advisories, and exceedance of water quality standards may constitute injuries to these resources. The trustees will release an assessment plan in 2002 that will address how they will ascertain the nature and magnitude of these potential injuries and the selection and scaling of appropriate restoration projects. The trustees welcome the public's input to this process. Contact one of the authors, or click here for more information (opens new browser window).

Thomas M. Brosnan (corresponding author) is an environmental scientist with NOAA's Damage Assessment Center in Silver Spring, MD. He has worked on a variety of Hudson River water quality issues for 15 years, including the effects of sewage disposal, combined sewer overflows, eutrophication, and toxic compounds. Click here for NOAA web site on the Hudson River (opens new browser window).
Larry Gumaer is a biologist with NYSDEC's Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources. He has a B.A. in biology from the University at Buffalo.

Kathryn Jahn has been an environmental contaminants biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's New York field office since 1994. She has worked on a variety of natural resource damage cases in New York State. Phone 607-753-9334.

Lisa Rosman is an environmental scientist with NOAA's Coastal Protection and Restoration Division in New York City. She currently works on sediment contamination and ecological risk issues. Her prior experience includes effects from dredging, eutrophication, and toxic compounds. Click here for additional information (opens new browser window).


Eisler, R. 1986. Polychlorinated Biphenyl Hazards to Fish, Wildlife, and Invertebrates: a Synoptic Review. Contaminant Hazard Reviews Report 7. USFWS, Biological Report 85(1.7). USFWS, Laurel, MD.

Eisler, R. and A. A. Belisle. 1996. Planar PCB Hazards to Fish, Wildlife, and Invertebrates: a synoptic review. National Biological Service Report 31. USFWS, Laurel, MD.

NOAA. 2001. Hudson River Watershed Database & Mapping Project. Developed by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, Coastal Protection and Restoration Division, Seattle, WA.

NYSDEC. 2001. Hudson River PCB Biota Database. NYSDEC, Bureau of Habitat, Albany, NY.

State of New York, NOAA, and USDOI. 1997. Preassessment Screen Determination for the Hudson River, New York. NYSDEC, Bureau of Habitat, Albany, New York. October 1997.

USEPA. 2000. Proposed Plan for the Hudson River PCBs Superfund Site, USEPA Region II, New York, NY.

USDOI, NOAA, NYSDEC. 2001. Injuries to Hudson River Fishery Resources: Fishery Closures and Consumption Restrictions. Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Issued by NYSDEC, Bureau of Habitat, Albany, NY.

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