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Hudson PCBs harming American river mink

ALBANY, N.Y. _ A small, brownish weasel that spends much of its life in the water, hunting for fish and frogs, the American mink is a signal for the ecological health of where it lives.

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, Albany Times

ALBANY, N.Y. _ A small, brownish weasel that spends much of its life in the water, hunting for fish and frogs, the American mink is a signal for the ecological health of where it lives.

Right now, the mink is not doing very well along the Hudson River, largely due to decades of PCB pollution from two General Electric plants in Washington County, according to a joint state and federal study released Thursday.

The study found the Hudson River has about 40 percent fewer minks living along it than the ecologically similar Mohawk River, and blamed that disparity on PCB contamination in the minks' diet, which inhibits fertility and increases mortality of young minks. Exposure to PCBs also causes health problems in minks, including jaw lesions and the loss of teeth, the study reported.

"Decades of PCB contamination continue to have severe and adverse effects on entire populations of animals, such as mink, in the Hudson River," said Kathryn Jahn, U.S. Department of Interior case manager for the Hudson. "Habitat and wildlife restoration, or land protection, by General Electric to help address this problem could begin at any time."

In the Hudson River study area, a total of 108 minks were detected, compared to 208 minks in the Mohawk River study area. The Mohawk had nearly two minks per square kilometer (about a third of a square mile), compared to between 1.2 minks per square kilometer on the Hudson.

Researchers used trained dogs during 2013 and 2014 along more than 300 miles of habitat on the two rivers to locate mink droppings, called scat. The dropping were then analyzed through DNA tests to individual minks. Test results were then used to project how many minks were present.

Researchers came from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the U.S. Geological Survey; and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Published this summer in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the study is the result of efforts that started in 1997 to quantify what harm PCBs caused to the river and how GE should be made to address it as part of a Natural Resources Damages Assessment.

GE wrapped up a $1.7 billion PCB dredging project in 2014 and is awaiting a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on whether the cleanup satisfied a 2002 agreement between EPA and the company.

GE believes it has done so, while the state and several environmental groups believe that too many PCBs were left behind and will continue to contaminate the river for decades to come.

"The job is far from done. The study released today is further evidence of GE's failure to complete the cleanup and EPA's years of failed oversight," according to a statement from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "New York will continue to use all legal tools to vigorously challenge the EPA and hold GE accountable for the costs of a full cleanup."

Said GE spokesman Mark Behan, "The Hudson River is an environmental success story. The limited study of comparative mink scat findings does nothing to diminish the success of the Hudson cleanup or the ongoing environmental recovery of the river as a whole."

Continued study of PCB damage to the Hudson comes as GE's corporate finances appear increasingly precarious. There is still no timeline on when the final ecological damages report might be released by the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The three agencies are designated as federal trustees to judge damage to the Hudson.

Since the cleanup ended, GE has sparred with both federal agencies _ USFW and NOAA _ over the agencies' earlier claims that excessive levels of PCBs were left behind in the river.

GE dredged PCBs from 40 miles of river bottom between Fort Edward and Troy between 2009 and 2014. That amounted to 310,000 pounds, or 72 percent of what is now known to be in the river. That means 120,000 pounds remain along the bottom, including in the navigation channel of the state's Champlain Canal.

This summer, GE's financial woes led it to be removed from the Down Jones Industrial Average after more than a century. This month, the company ousted its CEO and later slashed its normally reliable dividend payment to a penny.

Margaret Byrne, a USFW spokeswoman, said concerns over GE's future ability to pay for restoration of natural damages, is "outside the scope" of the most recent report on PCB impacts on mink.

This is the sixth such report issued by the federal trustees since 2001 on areas including fishery resources, navigation, waterfowl, groundwater and surface water resources. As part of a final damages report, the trustees would estimate monetary damages that could fund restoration projects on the river.

A report issued in February by the three river trustees questioned the effectiveness of the dredging project. That report found that while PCB levels in the river showed a decline, those levels as recently as 2014 remained well above federal safety guidelines, as well as above state standards meant to protect humans and animals that eat river fish.

"Enough time has passed. Enough studies have been done," said Althea Mullarkey, policy analyst for the advocacy group Scenic Hudson that supports further dredging. "It is time for a cooperative natural damages agreement to be made by GE."

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