An Up Close and Personal View of Dredging

It has been an eventful week on our stretch of the Upper Hudson. Monday evening, there seemed to be more barge and boat traffic than usual, and it continued through the night. It was like a parade of large, lit up vessels passing by our house. My son and I went out for a drive to see what we could see. The tree cutting barge was lit up on the other side of the river, which surprised me because I’d been told by a project rep that the tree cutters only worked during the daytime. (There was activity on it that night, but it’s been uninhabited every night since – although they keep a nightlight on.)

Then we drove south along the river. The locks were closed at night, and I expected to find a flotilla of barges approaching Lock 5, given all the traffic on the river. However, we couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Obviously, large equipment had mobilized, like tanks moving in during the night. In the morning, we would wake up and see where everything was placed.

On Wednesday, I went to a local park to walk the labyrinth, and as I got out of my car, I saw an older man – obviously a local – who appeared perturbed as he walked toward his car. As I got closer to him, I heard him exclaim to a female companion, “It’s disgusting!” I heard a motor sound beyond the labyrinth and knew immediately where all of Monday evening’s commotion had ended up: at the north entrance to Lock 5 just beyond the labyrinth. I talked with the couple for a few minutes. The man was dismayed to see how sloppy the excavator looked coming out of the water. He was not convinced that it was containing the PCBs and was worried about resuspension. (This is a widely held fear amongst locals.) He mused about how the wildlife had returned to the river in recent years and was thriving. Why bring up all this stuff after it had settled?

As I photographed the dredging barge in action, a woman and her dog stopped, and we talked for quite some time. Like me, she was an avid kayaker, and I could tell she appreciated the river as I do.

Swing set adjacent to the dredging barge
Air quality monitor at Lock 5

When I got home from work this afternoon, the tree cutters were working across the river, and I went to the dock to capture some images.


At one point, another huge barge went by.

Then I drove to Lock 5 to get some pictures of the dredging. I arrived in time to see the barge that had passed me on the dock replacing a presumably filled barge at the dredging site. Powerful little tugboats push the barges to and fro up and down the river.

Dredging wasn’t taking place at this time, so I sat and watched the barges being moved. A man approached me and asked if I was familiar with the dredging project. We started talking, and I learned that he was organizing an upcoming triathlon that would take place near the dredging. Like me, this man – upon learning that dredging would take place during this year’s event – made it his mission to become educated. Like me, he learned a good deal about PCBs, and the more he learned, his fears subsided. Although I have always drawn the line with regard to swimming in our section of the river, there is a big difference between buying into the PR propaganda – whether for or against the dredging – and educating oneself by talking to the right people and doing steadfast research.

I arrive at the dredging site as a person who is going to have dredging barges in front of my house and wants to experience the process up close in order to know what to expect, and also as a writer and photographer bearing witness. As I sat at the picnic table about as close to the dredging activity as is possible, I found myself fascinated by the process and wondering how the project will go down in history. Will it be a net positive? Something in my heart believes it will. But it will take some time. Our generation will not be the final judge. Perhaps it will get worse for a time before it gets better.

I took a walk and returned a little later to the same spot. By then the dredging had resumed, so I began to shoot some video. “Take One” was ruined by a woman sitting close by who received a phone call and exclaimed loudly, “I am PISSED!” She went on to talk about how she and her husband brought a picnic and had no idea dredging was going on right there. I noticed that they also had at least one fishing pole, for catch-and-release angling.

The video below shows a mechanical dredge removing sediment from the river bottom with an environmental clamshell bucket. Although it looks sloppy, the Environmental Protection Agency website explains that the clamshell bucket “closes tightly and seals the sediments inside before bringing them to the surface.” There is much more to the technology than meets the eye.


Email followers: Click HERE to see the brief video of the dredging.

While I was shooting the video, another woman approached and asked what’s going on. Someone replied, “Dredging,” and the woman’s jaw dropped. She identified herself as a swimmer in the upcoming triathlon.

I certainly can understand the woman’s reaction. Swimming in our stretch of the Hudson has always been outside of my personal comfort zone. General advice from the NYS Department of Health website includes not swallowing any water and showering after having physical contact with the water, to protect from potential exposure to harmful bacteria and microorganisms. This year, our area falls within a No Swim Area, although the triathlon course must certainly fall outside of it. Within the No Swim Area, there are additional safety concerns due to increased boat traffic, undercurrents, and potentially elevated levels of PCBs. How close is too close for comfort is a personal decision. It is my understanding that the primary risks of PCB exposure for humans come from eating contaminated fish and having contact with the sediment. Breathing contaminated dust is of particular concern. Despite being an avid kayaker on affected areas of the Upper Hudson, I have adopted a very conservative attitude with regard to having physical contact with the water.

Another interesting side topic concerns the kinds of cultural resources and historical artifacts and features that are being discovered as a result of the dredging. An archaeologist friend of mine commented that he would love to see what is being pulled up out of the muck and that prehistoric dugout canoes have been found in similar environments. Years ago, this friend excavated a preserved ox bow and beaver dam 10,000 to 13,000 years old not too far upstream.

It is so interesting to hear people’s stories as we gather at the dredging site. Everyone I have run into lately has some kind of connection to the river, and the different perspectives paint such a rich story of the different roles the river plays in people’s lives. 

And the lives of wildlife, too.

Sharing our stories is also a little like group therapy. Most of our lives will be inconvenienced in some way, and I find it interesting to experience different people’s reactions. Pretty much the only thing I can be in control of with regard to the dredging is my attitude. Initially, my husband and I were shocked to learn that this is the year we’ll have dredging in our stretch of the river; we weren’t expecting it so soon. That was followed by a stage of information gathering. And now I’m trying to make the most of it by writing, photographing, and being interested and fascinated. This is not going to be much of a kayaking year (unless we want to hoist our boats on top of the car and drive somewhere), but it’s only one year. Even two or three years would be but a drop in the bucket.

No pun intended. 🙂

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