Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Shipwrecks in Hudson pose historical dilemma


Times Union
By Matt Pacenza
February 26, 2006

Some want artifacts exhumed, but officials preach caution over PCBs

FORT EDWARD -- Imagine finding an unexpected gift. But you can't open it or touch it. And in fact, not long after you discover it, it must be destroyed. Permanently. If you're lucky, you can take a picture of it.

That's roughly the situation for upper Hudson River residents who embrace the area's rich history. An archaeological firm hired by the General Electric Co. to survey the river bottom and shoreline before the massive PCB dredging project begins next year has unearthed some unexpected treasures.

Sonar and diving teams have found up to seven boats, including one that may date to the 18th century. The remains can provide clues about history, from prehistoric Native American settlements to the French and Indian War and beyond.

But a preliminary report, not yet made public, suggests the artifacts won't be pulled out of the water -- because they're too polluted with PCBs. So, as of now, the rich material will be dug up and processed as toxic waste, just like the rest of the 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-laden muck that is to be dredged.

That infuriates locals such as Neal Orsini, who owns the Anvil Inn, a restaurant and hotel on the site of what used to be Fort Edward itself.

"We don't want our history scooped up and taken away," Orsini said. "Let's get in there and pull it out."

Federal environmental officials are telling locals that no final decisions have been made. The Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator, Alan Steinberg, announced at a community meeting this week that "wherever possible, I want artifacts saved. We want to work closely with GE to make sure (they) aren't smashed."

But Fort Edward area residents who serve on a local cultural resources committee that received a draft assessment of the river bottom's archaeology a few weeks ago said the message is clear: little can be pulled out of the river.

That is especially true for the wooden portions of boats and barges. The material soaked up the oily PCBs, rendering it toxic and possibly dangerous even to handle.

But why are pottery or metal artifacts unrecoverable, locals ask.

PCBs are mostly a hazard when they are ingested, such as from contaminated fish. No one plans on offering 19th-century pot shards or military hardware to schoolchildren as a tasty appetizer.
"This metal can be saved," said Eileen Hannay, manager of the Rogers Island Visitors Center, a small museum which offers exhibits on Fort Edward's history.

The area that will be dredged first is where the Hudson wraps around each side of the island.

On the south side of Rogers Island are two areas with shipwrecks that researchers believe won't need to be disturbed by the dredging. Hannay said one possibility is to leave those in place and build some sort of kiosk nearby so visitors could learn about the ships. When the water level recedes, a portion of each is visible.

Pulling all the artifacts up isn't necessarily the best use of resources, even if there are no contamination issues, said John Vetter, the EPA's national expert on archaeology and the National Historic Preservation Act.

One alternative, he said, is to map the fragments embedded in the river bottom. Then the visitor's center or other group could build replicas for a display.


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