Rutgers-led research team finds Hudson River is cleaning itself

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. A Rutgers-led team of scientists has discovered that nature may be slowly scrubbing the lower portion of the Hudson River free of pollution in a "washing machine" of its own making. Their findings were presented today (Nov. 7) at the 113th meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston.

In a yearlong study of the lower Hudson River estuary, the portion of the river where salt water and fresh water mingle from its mouth to the Tappan Zee Bridge about 40 miles upstream, scientists from Rutgers' Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences found that dangerous organic and inorganic pollutants are not lying immobile in sediment on the river bottom.

Instead, tidal forces, storms, rain and spring runoff are powering a cycle in which polluted sediment is stirred up and suspended in the water column, then re-deposited on the river floor.

Repeated over and over again, the process ultimately releases out of the sediment many dangerous contaminants and moves them out to sea, the scientists said. Contaminants include mercury, zinc, chromium, cadmium, and lead.

The sediment continues to leak some pollutants back into the river each time it gets stirred up, but over the long term, say the researchers, the river may slowly clean itself.

"In some regions of the river, there's been, on average, about a 10-fold cut in pollutants over 30 years: the sediments are approaching the levels where they were 30 years ago," says Rutgers professor of marine sciences Yair Rosenthal, a principal investigator in the study.

"They are still not clean, but they are getting clean," he added. Rosenthal and fellow principal investigators Professor Rob Sherrell and researcher Paul Field, both of Rutgers, say that the long-term decrease in contaminant levels is due mainly to a number of control measures mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.

They cited in particular a strict permitting system

Contact: Kevin P. Hyland
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

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