News / Scientific Concepts

“PCB Watch at Indian Point” By Abby Luby

Irradiated water leaking into the ground and into the Hudson River from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plants has raised concerns that PCBS could also be escaping into the river. The Buchanan based plant owned by Entergy, is situated on the banks of the Hudson River, the country’s largest superfund site for PCB cleanup.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the oversight agency for the plants, PCBS (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) were found years ago at the oldest Indian Point unit, Unit 1, which closed in 1974. The PCBS were reportedly treated and removed years later. Neil Sheehan of the NRC said that they have been concerned that PCBS could now show up in the groundwater. “If they [Entergy] were to pump out the groundwater, check contamination levels and then do a controlled release to the river, they could be releasing PCBS,” explained Sheehan. “That’s something the [plant] site is going to have to work on. Unit 1 is an old plant and the PCB issue has been raised before.”

Phil Musegaas, policy analyst with the environmental group Riverkeeper, studied test results from monitoring wells at Indian Point since leaks were announced a year and a half ago. “I have not seen anything that suggests there are PCBS in the ground water, assuming they are testing the water properly,” said Musegaas. “But that’s really surprising. I would be amazed if there weren’t any PCBS there.”

Discovering two large underground reservoirs amassed over years of leaking irradiated water beneath Unit 1 and Unit 2 prompted Entergy to test for PCBS.

“We haven’t seen any PCBS in the water we are testing,” said Jim Steets, spokesperson for Entergy. Steets referred to water sampled from the 54 monitoring wells at the plant. “Also no PCBS have been found from the two underground plumes. Had we seen PCBS in our samples, that would indicate a direct tie to the Unit 1 fuel pool, which is where we think the leaks are coming from.” The 40-foot-deep pool stores used radioactive fuel assemblies.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), who is also testing ground water at the plant, allows Entergy to dump prescribed amounts of effluent into the Hudson River every year, but no amount of PCBS are allowed to be released into the river. Should PCBS be discovered in the groundwater and in the river, Entergy’s remediation strategy would change and be more costly. Kimberly Chupa, spokesperson for the DEC, said “We would examine appropriate options for remediation if PCBS were to be found.”

PCBS: Industrial marvel turned toxic

PCBS are synthetic organic chemicals first manufactured commercially in 1929 by Monsanto and were used widely as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment, which was how they were used at Indian Point Unit 1. After years of releasing PCBS into waterways and the environment, their toxicity was attributed to serious health threats and classified by the EPA as probable human carcinogens. Since toxic concentrations of PCBS were in found in Hudson River fish, New York State banned fishing in the Upper Hudson River and commercial fishing of striped bass in the Lower Hudson in 1976. A year later the use of PCBS was banned nationally.

Who’s minding the store?

In 2000 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated 200 miles of the Hudson River as a superfund site. From Hudson Falls down to the Battery in New York City, it is the largest superfund site in the country. General Electric plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward discharged between 209,000 and 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river over 30 years.

Elias Rodrigues of the EPA said even though the agency technically has oversight authority over New York’s utilities on the Hudson River, they were unaware of what was going into the river from nuclear power plants.

“We do not know about any pollutants going into the river at Indian Point,” said Rodrigues. “But any data about that is public information available at our website. You need to check in with the DEC,” urged Rodrigues. “That issue is irrelevant to the goals of the EPA.”

The NRC also defers to the DEC for PCB oversight. “PCBS are not in our regulatory purview,” said Sheehan. “That falls under the state.”

DEC’s Chupa, who would only comment to The North County News via email, wrote that “PCBS are known to be present in the water in the footing drain for Unit-1. They are at very low levels and are being removed from the water prior to release to their discharge canal as required by a condition of their SPDES Permit, which precludes discharge of any PCBS.” (SPDES is the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System). Chupa also wrote “Additionally, Entergy is testing for PCBS in the groundwater/monitoring wells and these samples are not showing any detectable PCBS.”

Chupa said that the DEC didn’t know of any other PCB contamination in “environmental samples taken at this time.” Chupa also wrote that “Fish in the Hudson River are not currently being tested for PCB contamination for Indian Point.”

Hudson River Fish Long Contaminated

John Davis, an environmental scientist for the New York State Attorney General’s office explained “bio-accumulation” of PCBS in Hudson River fish.

“Fish eat things that live in river sediment,” said Davis. “When the sediment becomes contaminated, everything in the sediment, like worms and insects, become contaminated too.” Davis said the Hudson’s large mouth bass live as long as 10 years. “The longer the fish live, the more the PCBS build up in their body. We say the PCBS bio-accumulate. PCBS get stuck in the fat of the fish and don’t dissolve.” explained Davis.

Keeping watch

But Entergy claims they will keep a vigilant watch for PCBS that go into the Hudson River. Steets said Entergy will check for PCBS as an ongoing project.

“The frequency and location of the testing will change over time,” said Steets. “But I suspect we will be monitoring and sampling water at the plant for the next 30 years.”

Musegaas said that if PCBS were found close to the river, it could be assumed they were going into the river. “They [Entergy] would be in violation of the Clean Water Act,” he said. “I’m expecting that at some point we’ll get a well sample that will have PCBS in it, but it’s an open ended question.”

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