The Native Americans that lived along its shores called the Hudson River “Muhheakantuck.” This translates to “river that flows both ways‟ as the river does have tides that change throughout the day. Many Native American tribes, including the Lenape and Iroquois, but today’s river was named after Henry Hudson, an English explorer looking for a western passage to Asia in 1609 .
The Hudson River begins at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the high in the Adirondack Mountains. It flows south for 315 miles, finally opening up into the Atlantic Ocean at New York City. The watershed that enters into the Hudson River encapsulates about 13,350 square miles. This area includes most of the eastern side of New York State and some of Vermont, Massachusettes, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and Massachusetts .
The northern portion of the Hudson River is shouldered on either side by ancient metamorphic rocks and forest. These conditions make the water cold and clear. It is a favored by white-water rafters and fishermen alike. Around the Mohawk lowlands the scenery changes to lowland forests and farms with sedimentary rock. Erosion of this rock adds calcium and other minerals to the water and, therefore, it is less acidic than it is upstream. It is in this area that industrialization caused significant damage to the river, especially with the dumping of PCBs that affects this area as well as everything downstream and into the Atlantic Ocean. At the river passes over the Troy dam, it changes into an estuary. The remaining portions of the river downstream are large, mostly flat, and tidal. North of Kingston to Troy the river bottom is mostly sand while south of Kingston to New York City it is mud but there are portions throughout that have cobbles, bedrock, old oyster reefs, mussel shells and items that people have dumped over time .
Humans have lived along the Hudson River for over 8000 years but until modern times, there has been very little human impact on the river . During Colonial times, the river was the center of a lucrative fur trade and was used to transport wheat and timber from the Hudson Valley to New York City from where it was then sent out to the entire Western World. When Robert Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807 life on the river got easier. More improvements came in 1820, when the Erie Canal first opened, connecting the Hudson to the Great Lakes. This was soon followed by the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which linked Pennsylvania coal fields to the Hudson .
Tourism was also an important part of this landscape’s history. Use of the river was a part of the trip to destinations like Saratoga Springs, Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, and Canada, as well as being the destination itself. West Point and other historical Revolutionary War locales can be found on the river’s shores. The area’s natural scenery and its grand river homes were principal attractions. The sights are so well known that there is a movement of painting named after the Hudson River. As is still seen today, the river is often used for recreation. Sports boating, water skiing, swimming, fishing, and sunbathing are all typical summertime activities on the river today .
Beyond exploiting the river for its use as transportation, tourism and recreation, modern people have dramatically changed the river by filling and dredging, introducing invasive species, clearing the watershed for agriculture and residential needs, reducing significant numbers of shellfish and fish, as well as the damage of pollution .
One of the most important episodes of pollution that affected the entire river and those who live and work around it was the dumping of PCBs by General Electric. PCBs are a family of chemicals that are carcinogenic. They also can disrupt the endocrine system, act as neurotoxins, cause fetal development problems, impair the function of the thyroid, and create cognitive dysfunction. They were first developed by Monsanto in 1929. Because they do not burn or conduct electricity, they were quickly adopted for the use in transformers and capacitors in the electrical industry.
General Electric had been using a facility in Hudson Falls, NY to build supplies for World War II. When the war was over, they decided to revamp the family to build capacitors in Hudson Falls, as well as in another building a mile down the river in Ford Edward, NY .
Below the facilities, General Electric had blasted chambers out of the bedrock. Here, capacitors were submerged into vats of PCBs. The next step in the manufacturing was to remove the capacitor and wash it with another carcinogen, TCE. These two chemicals mixed together on the floor. Throughout the day more TCE was added to the flurry on the floor to dissolve ay PCBs and then was pushed away into pits that were built into the bedrock. From there the chemicals either seeped into fissures in the rock or was pumped through a pipe into the river .
PCBs were finally outlawed in 1976, but the damage to the surrounding area was already done. There were 7 million pounds of PCBs dumped in local landfills, all leaking into the groundwater. 1.3 million pounds were already in the Hudson River. Countless more millions of pounds had seeped into the rock beneath the two plants .
At this time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation banned fishing between the Ford Edward Dam and the Federal Dam in Troy, NY. This action caused commercial fisheries to close and 300 families no longer had their livelihoods. Previously, blue crab, catfish, carp, eel, herring, shad, sturgeon, striped bass and a variety of shellfish were all commercially fished in the Hudson River. All of these species were found to be PCB-contaminated at dangerous levels .
The river downstream of the pollution continues to be contaminated for a number of reasons. First, the chemical does not break down or biodegrade in the environment. The geology and makeup of the river system does not allow the chemical to be covered over by sediment. Also, chemical continued to seep out of the rock for countless years until General Electric was forced to remediate the issue. The Hudson River is not able to simply cleanse itself .
In 2009, General Electric embarked on a historic cleanup effort of the most polluted areas of the Hudson River. The company dredged more than 3.6 million cubic yards of sediment out of the river over six years to the tune of over $1 billion. Exactly what the ramifications of the dredging are and how much pollution was removed from the landscape is not yet known .
The Hudson River is a diverse landscape that is 315 miles long, flowing from Lake Tear of the Clouds to New York City. It travels through thick forest and low farmland and thickens to wide, flat river. The river is used for transportation, tourism, and for inspiration to the arts. General Electric caused irreparable damage to the landscape when they dumped PCBs into the water for more than thirty years. More than thirty years after the use of the chemical was outlawed General Electric finally started a massive dredging project to remove contaminated sediment from the river bottom.
- Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Hudson River Geography. Millbrook, NY: Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, n.d. Print.
- General Electric. “See the Progress.” n.d. Hudson River Dredging Project. Web. 31 January 2016.
- Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. Anatomy of a Toxic Spill: The Hudson River PCB Story. 1998. Web. 31 January 2016.
- The New York Public Library. “A Hudson River Portfolio .” 2001. The New York Public Library. Web. 31 January 2016.