What’s in the water?

| 30 Aug 2012 | 03:08

Are you swimming in PCBs? Paddling in poop? Now you can get a better idea of what’s going on in the murky waters of our neck of the Hudson River, thanks to a new high-tech environmental monitoring station at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. The pump station sucks up water samples every 15 minutes and automatically measures and records factors like water level, salinity level, turbidity and pH. It’s the 15th monitoring station collecting data from Albany down to the New York Harbor, and fills the 60-mile gap between the monitoring points of Norrie Point to the north and Piermont to the south. The information that comes with round-the-clock water sampling should be useful in all sorts of ways. It can help predict the floods that are becoming increasingly common, identify high bacteria content after a rain storm, figure out what environmental factors are killing fish, and give scientists the means to measure levels of pharmaceutical contamination like estrogen. But if there’s one fear that needs answering above all the others, it is – yet again – about that toxic chemical that’s been lurking on the riverbed for decades: polychlorinated biphenyls. “The question on everyone’s mind right now is PCBs,” said Dr. Stuart Findlay, an aquatic scientist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. PCBs were widely used as a fire preventive and insulator in the manufacture of electrical devices like transformers and capacitors until the 1970s, by which time General Electric had dumped 1.3 million pounds of the chemical into the Hudson. They’ve been working their way into fish fat and up the food chain into humans ever since. Now, by order of the Environmental Protection Agency, GE is dredging up the most contaminated portions of the riverbed, north of Troy. “PCBs are being dredged upriver as we speak,” said Findlay. “Communities like Poughkeepsie that remove water for drinking have asked, ‘How do we know that they’re not coming downriver?’ Because they monitor closely upriver, but it might make them feel better if we say, ‘Okay, for 24 hours we’ll collect from this part of the river.’” The new monitoring station doesn’t automatically measure PCB levels, but with the data and water samples it captures (and a lot of money), scientists finally have the tools to answer the question that’s been troubling river communities for decades. See the raw data for yourself at hrecos.org.