Hudson River's fish still polluted with PCBs, dangerous to eat, campaign warns

Martin Smolin, 79, of Tarrytown, is photographed on Martin Smolin, 79, of Tarrytown, is photographed on the banks of the Hudson River in Tarrytown. Smolin holds one of the new signs made by the state, set to be posted this spring, as part of a campaign to educate people on the dangers of eating fish that might be contaminated with PCBs. (March 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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As fishing becomes increasingly popular along the Hudson River's southern shores, worried citizens and community groups are partnering with state health officials to spread the word of the dangers related to eating PCB-polluted catches.

The issue of protecting women of child-bearing age and their unborn children is so important that Martin Smolin, 79, of Tarrytown, has become a one-man campaign. This spring, officials from Westchester County and some municipalities will post dozens of metal state Department of Health signs, some of them in Spanish, that read, "Notice! Some fish and crabs from these waters might be harmful to eat."

The motiviation was simple, said Smolin, a retired therapist and volunteer member of the Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Committee.

"PCBs interfere with the normal development of children and fetuses and it's a terrible thing to have a child who is damaged that way," he said.

In the last half a century, the Hudson River has made a major recovery from the 1960s and 1970s when New York's most famous waterway was described as an "open sewer and industrial dump" by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But the passage of both state measures and the 1972 Clean Water Act spurred a cleanup effort that makes it possible to swim in parts of the river.

Despite the pollution, the anglers also have returned, making the striped bass, river herring, white perch, catfish, American eel, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass their most popular catches, according to the DEC.

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Some of these fish, however, are more prone to polychlorinated biphenyl -- or PCB -- contamination than others. Odorless and colorless, cancer-causing PCBs reside in the fatty sections of fish. When eaten, they build up in the human body and can take 20 years or longer to clear out. Women who eat highly contaminated fish and become pregnant are at greater risk of having babies that are slower to develop and learn, according to state health advisories which warn children under age 15 and women under 50 to limit intake of Hudson River fish.

GETTING OUT THE WORD

With the striped bass migrating from the ocean back to New York's most famous and beloved waterway, anglers and community outreach folk also are planning their respective returns to the Hudson riverfront. The activists intend to greet the fishers armed with everything from coloring books for their kids to sobering bilingual informational posters and brochures. Their goal: to connect and educate communities where fishers who are drawn to the 192-mile river in search of free food.

The economy has contributed to a rise in "subsistence fishing" in the Hudson, where angling is a year-round endeavor, said Gil Hawkins, environmental director for the Hudson River Fishermen's Association.

"Because recreational fishing is inexpensive, we've seen a resurgence over the last decade," he said.

While PCBs are not a problem for sportfishers who catch and release, "those on the shoreline looking for dinner -- catfish, American eel, tommy cod, it all goes into the bucket," he said.

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In helping the state publicize safety issues, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County has made an effort to work with specific community groups. Immigrants in particular need to know about the dangers of PCBs, leading to an effort to inform a group of Salvadoran migrant workers who were enthusiastic fishers of eel and catfish, said Chuck Stead, a natural resources educator at the Extension.

After two years of talking to the workers, they are much less likely to take home these contaminated bottomfeeders from the depths of the river's PCB-laden sediment, said Stead. But he added that it's been harder to convince Hasidic wives to stop making gefilte fish from the Hudson's carp.

GENERAL ELECTRIC CLEANUP

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The problem, said Stead, is that the river looks more inviting than ever before. "But it doesn't mean it's all safe now because the invisible thing is the insidious thing that can build up over time and kill you," he said.

The "invisible thing" is the 1.3 tons of PCBs which General Electric dumped into the upper Hudson from its two capacitator production plants in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls. In 2009, the company began the $1 billion process of removing 40 miles of sediment from what has become the single largest Superfund dredging project in the country. On March 13, GE said that while it believes the cleanup plan under way will do the job, it would begin studying the possibility of expanding its dredging in response to a request for more information from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Fishing is banned in the dredging area. Down in the Hudson Valley, fish, sediment and water are less contaminated, but still must be brought into the kitchen with care, said Regina Keenan of the state Department of Health.

"Overall, we are not anti-fishing," Keenan said. "It's really good to eat fish but we're trying to steer people to healthier choices."

Since PCBs are an oil that is stored in the fatty part of a fish, the state recommends trimming off the skin and fat. Instead of frying, broiling or grilling are preferred cooking methods because they allow the contaminated oil to drip off.

With the increase in Hudson Valley anglers, the state needs more volunteers to help build awareness, especially in immigrant communities.

"We are looking for the Martin Smolins of the world who are on the ground and know how to get things done," Keenan said.

Since Smolin began making phone calls last fall, the state's metal warning signs have been ordered by Westchester County's parks department as well as the villages of Tarrytown, Croton, Ossining and the town of Cortlandt.

The signs are a first for the county but "we want to let our public know," said parks spokesman Peter Tartaglia, who said about a dozen signs will be posted soon.

In Tarrytown, village manager Mike Blau said that Smolin's legwork was helpful because "he brought it to our attention, he was the one who did the homework."

The signs will go up in April, he added, just before the village completes an expansion that will add 402 square feet to its existing 576-square-foot fishing pier.

Over in Rockland, Stead is preparing to enlist his interns to distribute hundreds of posters and warning signs, as well as thousands of brochures produced by the Cooperative extension. The pamphlets will be available at hospitals, schools and during the month of June, on county buses. During the summer, his team will organize kids' activities that balance the fun of fishing and crabbing along with teaching their dangers.

"The river is healthier but I don't know if you can put a 'healthy' stamp on it," he said. "It's better than it was but it has issues. It's a big river with big issues."

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